In 2005, former Disney animator Peter Lepeniotis (Toy Story 2, Fantasia 2000) directed “Surly Squirrel,” a computer-animated short about a foulmouthed municipal rodent who conspires with his rat friend to steal pizza from a park trash can across the street from an in-progress bank robbery. As a short film, “Surly Squirrel” is a mildly amusing proof-of-talent; it ends in a hail of gunfire and profanity, making it a strange choice to expand into a feature-length family film. The Nut Job preserves only the bare bones—a selfish squirrel, a raccoon antagonist, a bank robbery—and stretches those elements over 85 painfully unfunny minutes.
Will Arnett voices Surly, a selfish squirrel out to forage food for himself with the help of his mute rat friend, Buddy. Surly lives in the park among a group of animals struggling to stockpile food for the winter. This collective includes go-getter squirrel Andie (Katherine Heigl); a suspiciously benevolent overlord Raccoon (Liam Neeson), who relies on a repeated mantra (“For the park!”); and the assistance of a minion, Mole (Jeff Dunham), to maintain control. (For some indiscernible reason, neither of those last two characters have actual names like the others.) A conflict over ransacking a nut cart ends in Surly’s banishment, but when he and Buddy discover a nut shop—owned by a group of thieves attempting to tunnel under a bank vault across the street—the “Ocean’s Eleven meets Ratatouille with a dash of Over The Hedge” plot commences.
Even Pixar’s early computer-animated shorts now look dated and rudimentary, thanks to rapidly advancing animation technology. They play more like software experiments with small and charming story arcs. But with a budget of more than $40 million in 2014, The Nut Job has no excuse for looking this shoddy. The single wide-shot at the end of A Bug’s Life conveys more about a park setting than The Nut Job does in almost 90 minutes, and the city is empty of any people or animals not strictly tied to the central plot. The film is supposedly set in 1959—note the robbers’ archetypal accents, the old-timey cars, and the lack of sophisticated technology—but Psy’s “Gangnam Style” plays prominently into a mid-film dance sequence and a post-credits curtain call (including an animated cameo from the singer himself).
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But the most egregious problem with The Nut Job is how shamelessly it fills in the gaps left by expanding Lepeniotis’ short with generic and tedious rogue-to-hero cliché. Every beat of the story is a watered-down, jokeless version of previous children’s films; marrying hastily performed dialogue to its insipid outline of a plot, The Nut Job seems designed to trick misinformed parents into plopping down money to occupy their children for just over an hour. Only Grayson (Brendan Fraser), a fraudulently lauded, moronic hero figure and tangential observation machine, provides anything close to a laugh. Arnett’s affected, wily criminal accent comes and goes, while Heigl and especially Neeson should do whatever they can to forget their performances. Prospective attendees would be wise to do the same with the entire film.