The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature

Whilst still only peaking at “instantly disposable,” The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature is a commendable improvement from the legendarily awful original.

It is the backhand-iest of backhanded compliments, I know, but I do sincerely believe that subhead statement.  The Nut Job was the worst animated feature of this whole decade – at least, it was until about 3 weeks ago, but we’ll talk about that thing some other day – a miserable, hateful, cynical piece of pure garbage with ugly animation, one of the most unlikeable casts of characters in animation history, and a 99¢ fart soundboard instead of a screenplay, yelled at the top of its otherwise disinterested voice cast’s lungs like somebody spiked their between-take water with cocaine and spiders.  It was horrible, seemingly produced by a team who had collectively only seen 2 mid-2000s DreamWorks films in their entire lifetimes with a directive to remake Over the Hedge but at the quality level of Shark Tale, and closed with a dance party to “Gangam Style” and a cameo from PSY himself as rendered by the same computer graphics that brought us BAMZOOKi.

So, credit where it’s due: ToonBox Entertainment and Gulfstream Pictures have gone away and come back with a sequel – because some clever clogs chose to release the original in January, leading to it making bank and henceforth bringing us Nutty by Nature – that is a no-joke, genuinely-sincere, full-blown massive improvement over their first outing.  Now, said improvement meaning that the film still only peaks at “instantly disposable” does sound like damning with faint praise, but since I didn’t spend almost any of this film’s breezy 91 minutes sinking further down into my seat praying for the sweet release of the projector catching on fire, the increase in quality should be noted for the genuine achievement that it is.  I even, for about 10 to 15 minutes in the middle, found myself briefly having a bit of fun with the thing!

That’s because Nutty by Nature decided to bring a few actual jokes to the hoedown, this time.  Nothing ground-breaking or particularly inventive, mind you, but the film did manage to get a few genuine laughs out of me, mostly as a result of just how much it leans into the “humans are bastards” angle of its dynamic.  See, this time, after the nut shop that the animals of Liberty Park managed to commandeer for themselves at the end of the first film blows up, necessitating they move back into the park they were otherwise content to leave behind, everybody is forced to band together in order to save their home from evil humans.  Specifically, the ragingly corrupt town Mayor (Bobby Moynihan), his bratty daughter (Isabela Moner), and the inhumane animal control officer they’ve hired (Peter Stormare) to remove the animals from the park so they can turn it into a shoddy amusement park to bring in more revenue for the town that they can, in turn, skim profits off the top of to fill their fat cat pockets.

No, this does not make much in the way of sense, and risks sliding a little too close to the same territory that Norm of the North was operating in, but Nut Job 2 is fortunately too maniacally paced for it to be too much of a problem.  Whereas Norm and the first Nut Job both refused to get out of first gear, stopping constantly for extended one-joke detours, plot pile-ons – which 2 is also guilty of in its early going, as it sweats spinal fluid in order to get its cast into a position where everybody would actually be affected by the film’s own plot – or yet another dance sequence, Nutty by Nature leans more into the zany angle, which means that some semblance of effort has been put into the jokes.  Most of the best ones come once Precious the Pug (Maya Rudolph) is kidnapped by the Mayor’s Daughter whilst trying to distract her dog, Frankie the French Bulldog (Bobby Cannavale), leading to Surly the Squirrel (Will Arnett) and Buddy the Rat having to pull off a daring rescue, with the film going heavy on some decent slapstick for a stretch.  But there are also some other similarly easy yet agreeably funny jokes peppered about the place, predominately in the madcap climax.

Unsurprisingly, this means that few of the jokes come specifically from the characters – outside of the interactions between Precious and Frankie which also, surprisingly, provide the faintest glimmer of a heart for the film as a whole – although everybody is at least, thankfully, far less annoying than they were last time.  Now, this isn’t to say that the cast has suddenly gotten more developed, but everybody yells a lot less, and their overall jerkishness has been toned right the heck down, thankfully keeping the overall character dynamic from falling into the same “awful people doing awful things to each other for no reason yet you should still care about their various well-beings” pit as the first Nut Job.  Animation is also vastly improved; whilst still having a needlessly over-saturated colour scheme and an art style desperately trying to split the difference between DreamWorks and Pixar, ultimately lacking any uniquely identifiable characteristics, it is at least better put together, smoother, and more fluid than last time, which is why the slapstick manages to mostly work this go around.

Of course, as you might have gathered by the measured compliments of this entire review so far, none of this makes The Nut Job 2 a particularly good film, and definitely not a great film by any stretch of any definition.  Although the film does vastly improve upon the original in almost every respect, none of those improvements transfer into anything in any way memorable.  If The Nut Job failed spectacularly at being an amalgamation of every mid-2000s post-Shrek animation cliché that there was at the time, then Nutty by Nature succeeds at hitting that very low bar with little demonstrable compunction that it ever tried to aim higher than that.  There are pot-shots at Disney and the whole concept of Disney musicals, a few needle-drops that wore out all of their impact before this decade even started (including not one but TWO separate usages of “Born to Be Wild”), too many one-note one-joke characters crowding out valuable screen time, and no less than two instances of characters vomiting on-screen and then eating their own vomit – which, even though they are the only times that the film does go to the gross-out well, proves that some disgusting habits unfortunately do die hard.

Meanwhile, outside of the Precious/Frankie sequences, the film’s attempts at heart never manage to land.  Part of this is down to the film once again engaging heavily in cartoon physics and yet still expecting the viewer to fear for the safety of a cast that has demonstrated itself capable of surviving most punishment thrown its way.  There’s even a decent stretch of film predicated on stretching out a Disney Death, which already fails to work on its own but then proceeds to throw in a flashback sequence in the middle of this endless fake-out to try and retroactively add some pathos to the unfolding proceedings – said flashback is also the film’s biggest blip animation-wise, involving a hurricane sequence that looks more like the digital file was eating itself alive as the animation was being worked on than a hurricane.

Primarily, however, you can trace the heart issue all the way back to Surly himself.  Now, Surly has also massively improved as a character from the first Nut Job – although Arnett’s vocal work is still the auditory definition of phoning it in, and still incapable of deciding what Surly’s accent is actually supposed to be – and he is far less of a pompous, unlikeable jerk than last time.  That being said: Surly is still a jerk and most of the setbacks and obstacles that our heroes face during the course of the film are directly down to his own stupid actions.  That Disney Death I mentioned earlier occurs purely because, for reasons that completely escape any logical sense, Surly goes back, in the middle of a life-or-death escape chase, to punch a bobblehead.

Theoretically, particularly in the dynamic Surly shares with his love interest Andie the Squirrel (Katherine Heigl), this should be the capper to a thread about the dangers of masculine posturing, of thinking with one’s balls instead of their head, of how laziness and impulsiveness is no substitute for active preparation and planning.  Much of Surly’s actions throughout the film are made out of the insecure masculine desire to be loved by the rest of his group, to be seen as a decisive leader; all in contrast to Andie, whose attempts to try and plan for the future and keep her fellow parkland creatures’ instincts sharp are summarily laughed off and dismissed by a complacent group too enamoured by Surly to care.  Instead, other than a minor pang of guilt over nearly getting his best friend killed, nothing ever comes of this and the film seems completely unaware that this was supposed to be Surly’s entire arc or that it had laid any groundwork at all – the ending even has Surly proudly boast about the fact that he hasn’t learned anything, which, since the moral he hastily adds after that does not reflect any part of the previous 91 minutes in any way, is at least a refreshingly candid admission by the film.

Oh, yeah, and there’s also a sudden thread of racism that keeps randomly breaking into the film from time to time.  Seemingly born out of a viewing of The Secret Life of Pets and a collective challenge by everyone involved to come up with their own version of The Flushed Pets and the Kevin Hart-voiced Snowball but make it somehow even more racist, Jackie Chan shows up as Mr. Feng, the leader of a gang of vicious street mice where the whole joke is that they are angry Asian Kung Fu stereotypes who hate being called cute.  Their appearance also brings with it some wonderfully uncomfortable strands of White Saviourism, too, since they were displaced from their old home by the Mayor’s earlier scheme to build a golf course, and have subsequently become bitter, vicious, highly-territorial beings that need to be given a rousing pep talk by Surly in order to come out of their isolation and fight for their rights to live.  I was almost willing to let this all slide thanks to a short sequence in the finale in which a bunch of mice dressed up in a human suit engage in a comical kung-fu brawl – mainly because it reminded me that The LEGO Ninjago Movie is coming and I am ready for more animated martial arts movies – and the mid-credits animated outtakes (the one classic Pixar staple I wish more studios would rip-off) show that Jackie Chan was at least having a lot of fun recording his lines, but this whole thing is otherwise a massive, uncomfortable bum note on proceedings.

Proceedings that still never rise beyond “mildly-enjoyable Netflix watch for the kids once everything actually great has been watched,” but they’re still an improvement nonetheless.  Let me be clear, it is very easy to overstate just much of an improvement that The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature is on the utterly-ghastly original, and I am still not recommending that you go out and spend hard-earned money watching it in the cinema or anything.  If there has been a better physical encapsulation of the phrase “instantly disposable” released so far this year, I have yet to find it.  But, that all said, I want to give praise and encouragement where it’s due.  Maybe it’s because The Emoji Movie has forced a harsh recalibration of all quality readers and I am resultantly feeling generous, but The Nut Job 2 is a legitimate step up and clearly has been trying to learn from its prior mistakes, and that should be commended.  Maybe next time, whether that’s in another (now highly unlikely) Nut Job sequel or something else entirely, ToonBox and Gulfstream will aim significantly higher than “off-brand mid-2000s DreamWorks wannabe” and continue improving on their current failings.  I’d like to hope so!

Callum Petch stands in the mirror and waits for the feedback.

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