If a pop culture fad appears in a low-grade kids movie, was it ever truly popular to begin with? Forgive the quandary, but this is one of the many questions adults may find themselves musing over while spaced out during The Nut Job’slavish 86-minute running time. That and why did we ever care for Psy’s “Gangnam Style” in the first place?Distributed by Open Road Films, The Nut Jobis the first theatrical effort from animation studios Toolbox Entertainment and Korean-based Redrover International, which attempts to adapt Director Peter Lepeniotis’ 2005 short film, “Surly the Squirrel,” into a film that features celebrity voices and cuddly creatures who do indeed ultimately bring the “Gangnam Style” dance to computer generated life. In short: Pixar, this ain’t. Set in American City U.S.A. roughly during the mid-1950s, The Nut Job is the tale of one persistently selfish squirrel named Surly (Will Arnett) and his quest to have enough nuts for winter. Despite his excessive scheming, he comes off as a repellently squirrely Mr. Potter who cares little for his park neighbors, including Andie the Squirrel (Katherine Heigl), Mole the Mole (Jeff Dunham), and Grayson (Brendan Fraser) the Heroic George Bailey of Squirrel-dom. Together, the other park animals have engineered a communal Savings & Nuts organization for winter spearheaded by the austere Raccoon the Raccoon (Liam Neeson), but it is all for naught when during Surly’s latest scheme to steal popcorn from a nearby vendor, he inadvertently blows up the autumn harvest. Exiled and abandoned to live in the urban alleyways of the city, Surly’s only friend is Buddy the Rat. At least that is until he finds a way to break into a nearby ritzy nut store with enough swag to feed the park for years. The con is on.The Nut Jobis a perfectly pedestrian animated film that checks off many of the boxes that have been left on every studio’s spreadsheets since DreamWorks struck gold with Shrek. There are (dated) pop culture references to be noticed and celebrity voices to be admired for going cutesy. And for young ones that is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a decent message about not being so selfish and caring about one’s community, as Surly begins to think of his friends and the park as his own responsibility, as well as a hearty helping of slapstick humor and flatulence-based jokes that’s hilarity will be compounded with every year spent less on this Earth. However as a family entertainment, The Nut Jobcan be found severely wanting.
Lepeniotis and his co-screenwriter Lorne Cameron attempt to sprinkle in some meta-humor for the parents, as Surly and his crew assume heist movie dynamics concurrently with another onion layer of thievery found in the nut store’s owners, a group of 1950s gangsters and greasers preparing to knock over the nearby bank. As Surly discovers there’s a (ahem) mole in his operation, so too will the gangsters upstairs slowly reveal their double-crosses, resulting in a multi-plotted chase sequence finale. However, all this would-be scheming falls flatter than the movie’s pulse, in part because we don’t care about the human characters in the B-plot, and also because we care even less about the animal critters scurrying across the nut store’s basement. The one notable exception is the inevitable audience favorite Precious, a furry pug who is more frantic than ferocious. She is voiced with an infectious enthusiasm by Maya Rudolph, who stands alone in raising a chuckle out of any viewer over the age of nine. In fact, the only thing wrong with this inside mutt is that she may remind older viewers of Dug, the scene-stealing Golden Retriever from Up.And it is unfortunate for any parent enduring this picture to be reminded that animation can be more than mere distractions for children, cinematic babysitters at 90 minutes a pop. Animation can be a source of ageless amusement and even cathartic liberation with your imagination and emotion set free from the burden of reality. It is a visual dreamscape that can wield affectations like a grenade, making a 10-minute prologue in that other movie with a talking dog one of the most bittersweet love stories ever experienced in a movie house.The Nut Jobhas its place too as that eventual Netflix rental that is left streaming in the bonus room to offer an hour-plus of reprieve. But in the context of a movie season where Frozenis still enchanting every multiplex in the country, and The Lego Movie and The Wind Rises are only a month away from American release, The Nut Job feels like a sideshow scam in contrast.Early in The Nut Job, Grayson’s super-squirrel instincts sniff out the presence of Buddy hiding in a tree above him. “I smell a rat,” the heroic rodent exclaims. That makes two of us.Den of Geek Rating: 2 out of 5 StarsLike us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek.