Five minutes into "Ice Age: Continental Drift," kindhearted but accident-prone Sid the Sloth (voice of John Leguizamo) riffs a joke that summarizes the franchise. He's telling a new character how he and his glacial mates fought dinosaurs in the previous installment, summarizing, "It didn't make sense, but it sure was exciting."
No truer phrase has ever been said about this lucrative animated series. Logic may be extinct, but, boy do these movies whiz by like ice cubes on a linoleum floor.
Much like "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted," the fourth "Ice Age" freshens up the 10-year-old franchise by shunning easy pop-culture jokes and embracing its weird side. Critics are quick to praise the venerable Pixar studio for pioneering new territory with the feminist spirit of "Brave." But their creative rivals at DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox should be similarly championed for bold efforts with their established franchises, particularly when such abstract thought works as well as it does here.
"Continental Drift" doesn't contain anything as zeitgeist-defining as "Madagascar's" catchy earworm "Afro Circus" (polka dot, polka dot, polka dot, afro). But it does sling an assembly line of head-scratchingly strange and consistently funny jokes at its audience as it rockets along. Monkey pirates? Check. A lost continent made up entirely of acorns? Check. A thrilling action sequence set in the belly of a whale that dares to mimic Walt Disney's 1940 classic "Pinocchio"? Sure, why not.
Previous "Ice Age" installments drew inspiration from our planet's climate changes, and "Continental Drift" is no different. Here, fissures caused by volcanic fault lines separate franchise regulars Sid, Diego (Denis Leary) and Manny (Ray Romano) from the latter's family - wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer). Efforts to reunite at a sinking land bridge force Manny and crew to battle Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), a menacing ape who rules the Seven Seas from his pirate-ship-shaped iceberg.
"Continental Drift" does fall victim to an avoidable sequel trap by adding too many new faces at the expense of existing characters. Jennifer Lopez brings romantic chemistry as Shira, an albino tiger in Gutt's crew who ends up being a feisty love interest for Diego. And Wanda Sykes creates the funniest character in "Ice Age" history as Sid's Granny, a seemingly confused sloth who's far more intelligent than she lets on. But we spend so much time deciphering these new characters that Latifah's Ellie, and even Romano's Manny, are all but left in the dust. Longtime "Ice Age" screenwriter Michael Berg and newcomer Jason Fuchs make passing swipes at standard emotional messages about the bonds of friendship and family, but these life lessons are reduced to bite-size bon mots we're asked to rapidly digest en route to the next action sequence.
What "Continental Drift" lacks in character development, however, it makes up for in visual wizardry. The animation is spectacular, and the 3-D is some of the best I've seen this year. Animation lends itself to creative 3-D trickery, and co-directors Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier tweak their visuals so that every tusk, trunk and saber tooth extends into our laps.
The team also does more with ice and water than they ever have before. One long fight sequence against a giant crab in the middle of a choppy ocean alone justifies the price of a 3-D upgrade.
From a studio's perspective, "Ice Age" sequels are no-brainers. Each new chapter manages to improve on the box-office fortunes of its immediate predecessor. But that doesn't mean the sequels have to be dumb. "Continental Drift" is energetic, inventive and frequently amusing. And in Hollywood's current age of remakes and reboots, that's pretty cool.