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The Nut Job 2 marks a slight improvement on its way to the streaming landfill

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Photo: Open Road Films
Photo: Open Road Films
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The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature

Director: Cal Brunker
Runtime: 91 minutes
Rating: PG
Cast: Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl, Maya Rudolph, Jackie Chan, Bobby Cannavale, Bobby Moynihan, Peter Stormare
Availability: Theaters everywhere August 11

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The advent of streaming services may have mixed results for the experience of watching movies, but at the very least it may have turned movies like The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature into less of an environmental blight. Twenty-five years ago, a low-rent sequel to a low-rent cartoon that made a bit of kiddie cash as a January release might have still received a theatrical release, but its real bread and butter would be a VHS release, to the tune of thousands of chunky plastic tapes housed in those big clamshell boxes. The Nut Job 2 will still sell some DVDs, of course, and maybe even some Blu-rays for home-theater enthusiasts insistent that their children must experience the adventures of Surly Squirrel in full high-definition splendor. But the main reason this movie has been cobbled together with the help of six different corporate entities (and without the help of the original director/cowriter) is presumably as a mildly lucrative future addition to a streaming service’s library of kid distractors. The Great Pacific garbage patch of the future will contain relatively few copies of The Nut Job 2.

Of course, streaming services can host a different kind of blight—like the original Nut Job, as ugly and craven an animated feature as any given a wide release in the past few years. The Nut Job 2, as it turns out, is slightly better. The squirrel designs for Surly (Will Arnett) and his serious gal-pal Andie (Katherine Heigl) are still inexplicably both less cute than actual squirrels and less stylized than good cartoons (why do their faces slope so prominently into their noses, creating a nondescript field of hair on the faces of two major characters?), but the animation doesn’t look quite as cheap. Surly and Andie’s second adventure, wherein they endeavor to save their home park from an avaricious mayor (Bobby Moynihan) who wants to turn it into a profit-generating amusement park, is less ambitious than the original, which attempted to yoke together a rodent heisting of a store’s nut supply and a human bank robbery. But it’s also more propulsive, which is to say antic.

The sheer volume of agitated jabbering that goes on in kid-targeted, U.S.-funded animation has made “antic” something of an understandably dirty word. Then again, what other choice does The Nut Job 2 have? Many of its creative decisions represent some kind of muddle related to the first movie. Both Arnett and Maya Rudolph (reprising her role as a dog called Precious) decide to lean harder on Bugs Bunny-ish vocal inflections than last time, which would be endearing if they had more than a handful of funny lines between them. (One decent laugh: Rudolph’s Precious explaining that she doesn’t know how to roll over on command because she’s “not classically trained.”) Even less work has been done here to reconcile the late-’50s aesthetic of the movie’s setting with dialogue that relies on a mixture of lazy 2017 (or, really, 2013ish) colloquialisms and chestnuts of bad-cartoon patter that kids have been trained to find funny (e.g., spirited, pointless cries of “We’re all gonna die!” and “That was awesome!”).

As both the accents and the nominal setting indicate, the Nut Job movies perpetually exist on the brink of the Looney Tunes-style anarchy that most studio cartoons steadfastly avoid—or, as in this case, conflate with chases and realistically rendered large-scale peril. The hasty construction of a dilapidated amusement park leads to some tiny oddball moments in The Nut Job 2 that bring to mind classic Warner Bros. shorts: the merry way Moynihan’s mayor says “yes, I received your bribe!” on a phone call, or the presence of a snarling, hissing street gang of button-cute mice (led by Jackie Chan, no less) who at one point occupy a hazmat suit to fight off some human exterminators. Even this mild inspiration swings away from Looney Tunes and toward the climactic moments of late-’70s Disney, where a bunch of animals run around screaming “charge!” as they mount slapstick assaults against their oppressors.

Faint-praise comparisons to the weaker moments of The Rescuers may still oversell Nut Job 2 and its hacky running jokes about how Andie shouldn’t spontaneously break into song, because that’s so dumb—you know, as opposed to the height of sophistication involved when dredging up “Born To Be Wild” and “At Last” for punchline music cues (though it does wind up seeming like the model of restraint simply by not ending, as its predecessor did, with a “Gangam Style” dance party). Kids might like it, though parents might feel conflicted about how they absorb an early lesson that receiving free food without hours of soul-crushing work leads to laziness.

Eventually, the movie abandons this weirdly cranky hectoring in favor of a yay-teamwork lesson so half-assed, Surly makes a lame joke about not learning anything in his closing narration. “You know, you’re not as funny as you think you are,” Andie tells him earlier in the film. An honest rejoinder from Surly would involve him admitting that he’s not trying very hard to be funny. He’s just doing the minimum work necessary to stand out, with slight name-brand recognition, in the landfill of some parent’s Netflix queue.