The "Ice Age" films, which now number four, might have a prehistoric setting like the Flintstones, but their cartoon world is much closer to Wile E. Coyote.
In the crowded arena of kiddie blockbusters, the "Ice Age" movies — the fourth of which is the new, 3-D "Ice Age: Continental Drift" — are among the more slapstick. When they are any good, the motley crew of critters is silly and stupid and going splat.
No one does this more than Scrat, a squirrel-rat combination who serves as something like the mascot of the movies. He wordlessly and desperately pursues an ever-elusive nut with the same ratio of success Wile E. had of catching the Road Runner. His frantic hunt is a kind of background diversion from the movies' main action, which never amounts to the same delight.
"Ice Age: Continent Drift," like the previous films, begins with Scrat inadvertently causing a cataclysmic event. In this case, his fall into the Earth's core spurs the formation of the continents. It's this kind of thing that makes the universe "Ice Age" pleasant: The history of the world is shaped not by things like asteroids or political leaders, but by pratfalls and peanuts.
But such moments of dialogue-free mania are only brief respites in "Continental Drift," which is otherwise overstuffed with loud action scenes and the yammer of celebrity voices.
The main players remain the same: Manny the wooly mammoth (the ever-droll Ray Romano), his wife, Ellie, a mammoth raised by possums (Queen Latifah), Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) and Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo, with a slobbering lisp). Their gang includes others, too, but the focus here turns to Manny and Ellie's teenage daughter, Peaches (Keke Palmer).
When the plates start shifting, the breaking land separates Manny, Diego and Sid from the rest of the clan, sending them out to sea on an iceberg. There, they encounter — what else? — a villainous pirate orangutan.
And it's here — at first mention of the pirate orangutan — where it's fitting to remark that the "Ice Age" franchise has never been a carefully created world based on a sensible fictional reality where character-based comedy unfolds naturally. It makes slapdash grabs for attention — dinosaurs were in the last one — and the franchise is compelled by little more than further box office receipts.
That said, if you're going to force a villainous pirate orangutan named Captain Gutt into your wooly mammoth cartoon, you can do no better than to call on Peter Dinklage to voice him. His menacing baritone adds heft to the movie, which mainly follows various battles between the gang and Captain Gutt's shipmates.
Most notable among them is Shira, also a saber-toothed cat, voiced by Jennifer Lopez, and love interest for Diego. Wanda Sykes makes more of an impression as Granny, an elderly relative of Sid's who's dropped off with him at the start of the film.
While the stranded group attempts to make their way home, the storyline among the others is standard teenage stuff, as Peaches struggles to fit in with the cool kids (voiced by Drake, Nicki Minaj and Heather Morris), an annoying group of young wooly mammoths who say "sick" and "burn."
Peer pressure pulls Peaches away from her less popular mole hog friend, Louis (Josh Gad), whose meek, lovesick earnestness makes Tiny Tim look like a cynical jerk.
"Continental Drift" is directed by Steve Martino ("Horton Hears a Who!") and Mike Thurmeier (who co-directed the last installment, "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs") from a screenplay by Michael Berg, Jason Fuchs and Michael Berg. The filmmakers stuff the film to a manic degree, albeit with increasingly textured animation.
They collectively lead the gang through the shifting tectonics of family and romantic life, inevitably finding predictable lessons along the way. But "Continental Drift," like the rest of the "Ice Age" movies, is best when it leaves poignancy to the folks at Pixar.
Extinction, after all, awaits us all. So how about we stick to the slapstick?
"Ice Age: Continental Drift," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG for mild rude humor and action. Running time: 87 minutes.