For some mysterious reason, talking rodents seem to be the number one top-selling commodity for children of every generation. My childhood rodent heroes were mostly from the Redwall series but the talking rodent goes way back to the early 20th century, with appearances as far back as The Wind in the Willows (1908) and Disney’s inaugural Steamboat Willie (1928). Mice and rats—and to a lesser extent, squirrels (Rocky and Bullwinkle [1959-64])—have been the primary focalization for children in talking animal stories for a century. The reason for this affinity is unclear—maybe they are easy to humanize for children because they have no inborn threatening features, lacking fangs, claws, poisons, and cold-blooded hearts; or maybe there is some intrinsic link between us humans and our gnawing big-toothed mammalian cousins. Whatever the case, The Nut Job adds yet another film to the long line of anthropomorphized rodents, and not much of one.
Director: Peter Lepeniotis
Producers: Hongjoo Ahn, William Bidley, Hoe Jin Ha, Woo-Kyung Jung, Mike Karz, Hong Kim, Hyungkon Kim, Graham Moloy, Daniel Woo, Tom Yoon
Writers: Lorne Cameron, Peter Lepeniotis, Daniel Woo
Editor: Paul Hunter
Cast: Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson, Katherine Heigl, Stephan Lang, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Dunham, Gabriel Iglesias, Sarah Gadon
Runtime: 86 minutes
Country: Canada/USA/South Korea
US Theatrical Release: January 17, 2014
US Distributor: Open Road Films
Set in the blandest film noir world you can image, a 1950’s New York City that lacks any grit or substance, The Nut Job is a half-hearted attempt to inject heist-movie excitement into a Disney/Pixar knockoff. The film’s main character is Surly Squirrel (Will Arnett), a loner ostensibly living from one nut heist to the next, who is banished from the film’s park by Raccoon (Liam Neeson), an r-rolling, British-accented leader-turned-villain who is out to get Surly for some undisclosed reason. The other foci are Surly’s love interest, Andie (Katherine Heigl), a character whose primary motivation seems to be “you’re the girl”; a deaf and dumb rat best friend; and a preening narcissus (Brendan Fraser) who is the butt of dozens of bad puns and sloppy jokes.
The plot is relatively clever, following a “nut heist” at a nut store that is being used (by its human owners) as a front for a simultaneous bank robbery, but it is undercut by a willingness to rely on tired genre tricks inherent to kids movies: fart jokes and bad puns. And the animation style is just as generic, a muddy palate of browns, blacks and muted colors with character design that adds nothing.
As a comedy (and somehow all of these kids movies must be comedies as well as adventure flicks), The Nut Job is an embarrassment. “Going nuts” as a pun falls flat each of the four times it is used, and the rest of the writing is just as flat and uncreative. A weird insertion of “Gangnam Style”—and a completely unnecessary credits sequence of an animated Psy dancing to his July 2012 viral hit—seems to have only been tacked on to give the film some type of contemporary relevance, though they have missed their mark by a year and a half. Really the only bright point in the film’s comedy is Maya Rudolph’s performance as Precious the pug. Her remarkable comedic timing manages to insert a bit of humor into lines that are consistent with the rest of the film. But that doesn’t save the script, whose writers seem to have decided that any awkwardly written scene can just be fixed with another farting or burping gag.
The Nut Job is forgettable and mediocre, with a cobbled-together approach that makes it feel written by focus groups rather than a team of writers. While it may be an easy way to avoid talking to their children for an hour and a half, adults will find little entertainment here. For my talking rodent adventures, I’d rather see The Great Mouse Detective (1986) or Ratatouille (2007) any day than suffer through this flop.