MRR Review: "The Nut Job"

Photo Credit: Open Road Films (II)

Rating: PG
Length: 85 minutes
Release Date: January 17, 2014
Directed by: Peter Lepeniotis
Genre: Animation / Adventure / Comedy / Family

Featuring the vocal talents of Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl, Liam Neeson and Brendan Fraser, "The Nut Job" is an animated comedy for kids, teens and adults. When the perpetually cranky Surly, an endearing purple squirrel voiced by Will Arnett, gets ejected from his home park, he tries his luck in the big city. With only his best friend Buddy for company, Surly must make new friends and stockpile food before winter comes.

Based on an original story by Daniel Woo and a screenplay by Lorne Cameron, "The Nut Job" is a funny and thoroughly enjoyable treat for all ages. The story begins when Surly the Squirrel and his hapless friend Buddy accidentally set their park on fire. With their former home partially destroyed and its remaining residents none too happy about it, Surly and Buddy set out to find a solution to the problem and redeem themselves. Winter is just around the corner, and the pressure is on. Facing impending starvation in their new urban environment, the rodents soon stumble upon the answer to their problems: a gigantic nut store. With Buddy's help, Surly devises a plan to steal enough of the tantalizing nuts to last through the winter. Of course, his plan doesn't stop there. The adorably grandiose Surly also convinces Buddy to help him steal the store's entire inventory and provide a winter's worth of nuts for the denizens of their fire-ravaged home park.

"The Nut Job" is a slickly animated comedic romp that succeeds on many levels. The animals are cute and likable - even the prickly protagonist, who has a heart of gold hiding beneath his gruff attitude. The brilliant comedic timing and top-notch voice acting set this film apart from many other animated comedies. Will Arnett, the voice of Surly, rose to fame after landing a starring role on the hit show "Arrested Development." The actors voicing the other principal characters are also Hollywood heavyweights. The most venerable - and perhaps surprising - cast member is Liam Neeson, who voices the conniving villain named Raccoon. Neeson is best known for his dramatic skills but displays fantastic comedic timing in this role.

Director Peter Lepeniotis, who-wrote the screenplay, inaugurated the "The Nut Job" franchise with his 2005 animated short film, "Surly Squirrel." The short stars the purple squirrel and his rat pal Buddy, who cause mayhem in their park when they squabble over a piece of pizza. During their noisy dispute, the pair unwittingly interrupt a bank robbery and become unwilling participants in a high-speed police chase. The plot of "The Nut Job" is an extended version of this story. Surly and Buddy are so focused on stealing nuts that they grow unaware of their surroundings and wind up foiling a bank heist. What follows is a madcap dash around the city with stolen nuts, stolen money, police officers and crooks on the lam.

"The Nut Job" offers plenty of side-splitting laughs, but the film also addresses sobering issues such as homelessness, peer pressure and crime. Lorne Cameron's screenwriting shines without preachiness or pretense. This is Lepeniotis' first major directing gig, although he has over 20 years' experience in animation and CGI production. His past projects include "Toy Story 2," "Fantasia/2000" and the 1995 Bill Pullman film "Casper." Lepeniotis skillfully blends the film's comedic elements with its serious moments, creating poignant scenes interspersed between jokes and slapstick antics. Surly is a modern-day Robin Hood, stealing from a wealthy corporation to provide food for himself and his loved ones. For children, "The Nut Job" is a zany comedy. For parents and teens, however, the film is also an excellent starting point for conversations about friendship, loyalty and morality.

Although "The Nut Job" addresses serious issues, it is appropriate for children. There is no graphic language or sexual content, and the film contains minimal cartoon violence. The catchy soundtrack includes the original songs "Nut Job," composed by Clinton Sparks, and "N.E.V.E.R.," by Alana D. Its ending credits also feature the Korean smash hit "Gangnam Style" and a cameo appearance by the Korean pop star PSY.

"The Nut Job" is quality family entertainment for everyone who loves to laugh. Its fast-paced shots and unique angles are especially appealing to 3-D fans, but the film's simultaneous 2-D release is also delightful. Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, Katherine Heigl and Brendan Fraser are so effective in their respective roles that it is easy to forget the famous faces behind the scenes. "The Nut Job"'s terrific voice acting is matched by seamless computer animation and a toe-tapping soundtrack featuring rising stars of pop and hip-hop.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5