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MOVIE REVIEW: The Nut Job

Katherine Heigl as "Andie" and Will Arnett as "Surly"
Katherine Heigl as "Andie" and Will Arnett as "Surly"Open Road Films and Engame Releasing

Feeling a little nutty? Go see THE NUT JOB. While overall entertaining and a sure crowd-pleaser to the younger set, with THE NUT JOB, some elements of the film are chestnuty warm and tasty, roasted to perfection, while others prove to be a tough nut to crack. The result is a mixed bag of nuts that, unfortunately, may prove to be more peanut than the meatier walnut or pecan. Nevertheless, there is plenty of nutty goodness to go around.

Will Arnett as the voice of "Surly"
Will Arnett as the voice of "Surly"Open Road Films

Based on writer/director Peter Lepeniotis’ animated short “Surly Squirrel” and co-written by Lorne Cameron, THE NUT JOB fights itself trying to make up its mind whether to be a “Tom & Jerry” cartoon or a classic film noir gangster heist, but in the process still manages to deliver great political subtext hidden in the guise of some of the most adorable animated woodland creatures on screen and their own Orwellesque societal struggle in Liberty Park. And oh yeah, there’s lot of slapstick cartoon comedy and Wile E. Coyote explosions and shenanigans that are truly laugh out loud funny.

Surly is the bane of everyone’s existence in Oakton’s Liberty Park. Never a team player, everything is always about him. With winter approaching, food storage levels in the Big Oak food silo are dangerously low, with little to be found within the park itself. Knowing he must provide for his animals, park leader Raccoon pushes all the little residents to try harder, forage harder, dig deeper to find food. Of course, Surly refuses to help, opting to go his own way with his only friend, a rat named Buddy. But in the course of his antics involving a certain nut vendor from Maury’s Nuts, he destroys the Big Oak and all of the food on hand.

Out on his own, Surly endeavors to find Maury’s Nuts and squirrel away everything he can find for himself. But smarter than the average squirrel Andie is hot on Surly’s trail and also learns of the nut shop. A front for a mobster and his gang who are using the shop as cover for a bank heist next door, Surly comes up with a plan - to pull off his own heist. Of the nuts. Unable to pull off the plan with just Buddy, and banished from Liberty Park with no allies to call on, Surly makes a deal with Andie to join forces and split the haul.

As Surly and Andie move ahead with their heist with the narcissistic and arrogant fellow squirrel Grayson puffing out his chest in pompous arrogance as opposed to really helping, Mole and the groundhog Bruiser Brothers lend a hand with the tunneling. In the meantime, mob boss King and his minions, Fingers, Lucky and Knuckles are doing their own tunneling, while trying to eliminate what they think is an invasion of rats in the basement. Joining in the fray is King’s dog Precious who plays turncoat, coming to the aid of Surly. But what happens when the animals learn that Raccoon and his henchbird, Cardinal (who bears a striking resemblance to Hitler), are not who they appear to be and are pulling their own con job. Mirroring Raccoon is King who also plans to double-cross his team.

Set in the fall of 1959, the noir-themed heist is captured in character and tone, not to mention a background palette of animation that mimics the look and tone of the era as well as the much of the flat animation styling of the day. Set against that is vibrant, 21st century eye-popping richness with color and life in both Liberty Park and the animals themselves. While each style and look is beautiful and telling unto itself, put together, there is an uncomfortableness of “one of these things doesn’t belong.” Where art director Ian Hastings and the Toonbox animation team truly soar is with the cute creature creation and the specific individual characters, embedding within each traits and features that not only capture the elements of the furry and feathered, but the individual characteristics of each character. Most notable and the real standout among the four-footed is Precious, as Precious is a perfect example of capturing the human expressionism and incorporating it into the character, thanks in large part to the voice talents of Maya Rudolph.

Starting with Rudolph, the voice talents in THE NUT JOB are exemplary. As Precious, Rudolph is pure joy and fun. The animation and her vocal inflection is perfectly melded. Not only do you easily envision Rudolph turning her back and butt up and being enthusiastically lickalicious with every movement and nuance of the animation, but you feel the emotion with every syllable of dialogue. As Surly, Will Arnett provides a grating abrasiveness that bodes well for the selfish squirrel while Liam Neeson is almost regal, yet mysterious, as Raccoon. From start to finish, Neeson’s vocals are textured, creating almost a sense of foreboding. Always a fun voice in animation is that of Gabriel Iglesias who sounds quite bruising as Johnny, one of the Bruiser Brothers. Katherine Heigl gives a sweet determined edge to Andie while Brendan Fraser perfectly captures and gives pompous life to Grayson.

Although we’ve seen similar stories on screen for decades, never have we seen them told from a squirrel’s perspective. The storyline is well plotted and easy to comprehend which will provide something besides cute animals, funny antics and nutty explosions to entertain the kids while adults will pick-up on the subtleties of political subtext. And again, each character is so well defined that kids particularly will easily identify and gravitate towards them. Tugging at the heartstrings are some endearing scenes between Surly and Buddy, adding a little texture to the story.

Appreciated is that director Lepeniotis and his team maintain the POV of a squirrel, particularly in the City, which creates awe and even a caring fear for the animals as they navigate what to them are oversized feet, rocks, rats, trash cans, even scraps of paper. Shown in 3D, the effect is judicious but effective and never moreso than with the Big Oak exploding into flames with virtual corn kernels popping into the air and seemingly into your lap in the audience.

One of the cutest things in THE NUT JOB comes in the end titles with mobsters, moles and squirrels alike dancing with Psy and “Gangnam Style”, obviously incorporated because of Psy’s pitching for pistachios. Unfortunately, the “Gangnam Style” phase has passed making the film feel like it sat on a shelf for too long.

Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t. THE NUT JOB is pretty darn nutty.

Directed by Peter Lepeniotis
Written by Peter Lepeniotis and Lorne Cameron

Voice Cast: Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl, Liam Neeson, Brendan Fraser, Maya Rudolph