REVIEW – Second “Nut Job” Same as the First, While Still Trying a Little Harder to Please
by Joe Hammerschmidt
Fair statement, to my surprise: The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature will not go down as the worst animated movie I bothered to see in a theater, yet it will be nowhere near the best thing ever. Like its 2014 predecessor which disappointed many but still earned enough of a satisfying profit, the film plays much the same, as a fluffy toon with cute enough looking animalian characters who are otherwise hard to like. The apparent exception is accidental hero Surly (Will Arnett), the grouchy self-centered lackwit with a heart of gold; the latter only grows in legend as his home becomes under threat of yet another political conflict, this time of the human variety.
Opening with an allegorical statement for any of nature’s creatures getting too comfortable with the joys of luxury, not quite looking out for each other, the rather laidback residents of Liberty Park have enjoyed a giant windfall shortly after the first film ended. A lifetime supply of food is suddenly theirs for the taking at the abandoned Nibbler’s Nut Shop, putting an end to the desire to forage per once established instinct, something female lead Andie (thankfully still portrayed by Katherine Heigl) is desperate to maintain with her neighbors. An instantly ironic pie-in-the face lands the moment the whole building explodes due to a boiler incident; the more ironic gut-punch occurs upon the announcement crooked Mayor Maldoon (Bobby Moynihan, sporting a slightly inconsistent southern drawl) attempts to string together an ill-advised theme park on the sprawling land the park resides on, and with it eradicate the population of squirrels, mice, and miscellanous woodland creatures who don’t necessarily need as much screen time as they earn.
The original Nut Job wasted any potential it was rolling with (not much) on trying to establish a universe by pitting uninteresting characters in an atmosphere lacking in organics. Sequel-itis leaves a bitter taste for this second go, yet to my amazement, there were at least two elements I liked that was sorely lacking before: a snappy penchant for visual humor and the presence of a comedic Jackie Chan willing to poke fun at his own repartee. For the former, it’s not exactly quick rapid-fire gags, but extended sequences by which a manic energy thrives. It isn’t entirely hilarious, but still pleasing if you were ever one for gags which need ample time to reach a punchline. Consider this the one structural element director Cal Brunker (Escape From Planet Earth) gets right.
Chan proves himself the deserved MVP with newcoming cast members (three characters have been recast, likely for no clear reason except they just found people with some name recognition). Portraying an omniscient “city mouse” clan leader with certain karate skills, the acting legend is just having a good time, and it’s often too easy to tell as a b-reel of recording booth antics played over the credits shows.
Arnett and Heigl’s angle as friends and almost-romantic interests are separately fair game, though together are an awkward match. While Surly appears to have plateaued in his character evolution, Andie (Heigl) takes a slightly weird turn. Still the caring one looking out for everyone’s best interests, her saccharine influence flatlines; never a good sign if you’re trying to make fun of spontaneously breaking into song when it doesn’t appear warranted. An honorable mention must go to Peter Stormare, as the mayor’s hired hand for the city-wide extermination effort; the one character whose timely presence deserved more to play with. And yes, even Precious (Maya Rudolph), the original’s big scene-stealer, will get a few moments after paired with fellow pug Frankie (Bobby Cannavale) as a more obvious romantic factor. Sadly, everyone else, regardless of who earned their humorous quirks, and whose were forced upon them, fails to register as well as the supporting characters in a larger studio flick likely would, even with anonymous focus group testing to back up claims.
Even seeing the introductory slide that welcomed the audience I had screened this feature with last week, the apparent nature by which The Nut Job 2 knows the kind of audience it’s aiming for glosses over the animated feature it could’ve been were it not trying to please just the anklebiters, and not the gatekeeping parents. This sequel, while struggling to break from the generic formula its predecessor was plagued by, and weighed down by a B-list cast who couldn’t make heads or tails of trying to give their characters depth, still enjoys some welcome moments where innocent, ageless cartoon mischief occurs, and makes it look easy (or perhaps lazy?). If faced with an indie toon flick that maybe shouldn’t have been made (or at least earned a sequel), it’s always best to not set expectations too high. This isn’t the latest Pixar trainwreck, it’s a Korean-Canadian joint effort that’ll see decent matinee crowds; worth taking the kids to, provided one can find a decent palatte-cleanser afterwards. (C-)
The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature is playing at most area theaters; rated PG for action and some rude humor; 91 minutes.