As far as movies go, the heist genre — as typified by “The Italian Job,” “Ocean’s Eleven” or “The Score” — is a bit hard to imagine being translated into a children’s cartoon, due largely to the moral ambiguity of the protagonist or his actions. But this tall order didn’t stop Canadian director Peter Lepiniotis from boldly making the attempt in his debut computer animated film “The Nut Job.”
Set in the fictional town of Oakton in 1959, the joint US, Canadian and South Korean production follows the efforts of two urban animals living in the town’s Liberty Park: Surly Squirrel (Will Arnett) and his best friend, a silent, acquiescing rat named Buddy, as they tried to stockpile food stuffs ahead of the winter.
Renowned for his smarts and resourcefulness in finding food, Surly is ostracized by his fellow rodents, particularly their patriarchal, self righteous leader Raccoon (Liam Neeson), for his selfish, scheming ways. The two are set on a collision course, after Raccoon’s subordinate mole (Jeff Dunham) informed him of a food shortage in the park.
The trigger for the conflict came when Surly and Buddy’s attempted heist of a peanut cart owned by two humans went awry due to our unlikely protagonists’ refusal to cooperate with Andie (Katherine Heigl) and the seemingly heroic Grayson (Brendan Fraser), two fellow squirrels sent by Raccoon to procure the cache for winter.
The characters’ shenanigans ultimately destroys their food stockpile, prompting Raccoon to banish Surly from the park.
Forced to fend for himself on the streets, Surly stumbled upon his chance for redemption after discovering the peanut shop that had supplied the ill-fated nut cart.
But the ambitious squirrel got far more than he bargained for, as the shop merely acted as a front for mob boss Percy “King” Dimplewade’s (Stephen Lang) attempt at a bank heist.
Luckily, this handicap along with Raccoon’s dictatorial tendencies became a boon for Surly, as it forced him to tap into his hidden values, including selflessness and the bonds of friendship.
With a long list of impressive credits to his name that include “Toy Story 2,” Lepeniotis based “The Nut Job” on his 2005 cartoon short “Surly Squirrel.”
Given a complex premise and an ensemble cast led by Arnett, Heigl and Neeson, the Greek Canadian could have made the most of the talent at his disposal. Instead, the cartoon suffered from a plodding pace and tired, time-tested gags, while Buddy’s muteness deprived the feature of a worthy foil if he had instead been presented as a witty, wisecracking sidekick.
The elements of betrayal and treachery that are characteristic of heist movies could have worked in “The Nut Job” if only the protagonist possessed a redeeming factor and the tangible sense of morality that has turned into a requirement for animated film characters.
While his better nature eventually shone through, the emphasis on Surly’s unpleasant traits throughout much of the movie — namely his treacherous, antisocial and selfish tendencies — only alienated viewers, making it hard for anyone to root for him.
Heigl’s take on Andie could have provided a worthwhile moral counterpoint. Unfortunately, her voice seemed drowned out by the manic tone of the movie and its characters.
However, Neeson and Fraser helped redeem “The Nut Job” with their respective turns as Raccoon and Grayson. The former’s authoritative voice and manner in portraying Raccoon’s disingenuous, megalomaniac ways are compelling, while Fraser’s take as the bumbling Grayson salvaged some laughs.
But though their efforts might have gotten “The Nut Job” a sequel, they still couldn’t save the film from being consigned to cartoon limbo.
‘The Nut Job’
Directing and screenplay by Peter Lepeniotis
Produced by Graham Moloy and WK Jung
Starring Will Arnett, Liam Neeson and Katherine Heigl
2014 Gulfstream Pictures, Red Rover International and ToonBox Entertainment
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on August 6, 2014