Let's be perfectly fair here: I didn't hate Ice Age 2: The Meltdown. That isn't to say I loved it, either. More like I was just mostly indifferent to it, in much the way that I'm mostly indifferent to grilled cheese-and-tomato sandwiches. Admittedly, the film got off to a bit of a rocky start with me, with its opening scene of a gang of thuggish Ice Age animal children picking on and beating up on Sid the sloth, their camp counselor. Note to people in Fox script department: parents really hate it when you encourage their tykes to truss up the nearest adult and play pinata with him with a wooden baseball bat. Even my kids were appalled by that bit; my six-year-old son, eyebrows knitted in his "worried" look, whispered, "Mommy, why are those kids being so mean to Sid? That's not really very nice, right, Mommy?"

As you can probably guess from the title, the sequel to the popular Ice Age is about the global warming that caused the end of the Ice Age. You could probably get all scientific and actually prove that because Ice Age 2 had a (insert extinct mammal of your choice here) in it, there's no way the end of the Ice Age was happening by Ice Age 2, because everyone knows that (extinct mammal) was extinct well before the end of the Ice Age. I don't care. Things are warming up, the ice is melting into natural waterslide parks, and the thick fur coats are starting to feel a little out of season. Nobody's too worried, though, until a traveling salesman comes by warning of a gargantuan flood that's going to engulf the cozy valley you call home. The only way out, he says, is through the end of the valley, where a giant boat is waiting. Um...a boat? A flood? Wait, did I walk into a Veggie Tales movie by mistake?

 

Now Manny the Mammoth (Ray Romano), Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) and Diego, the Saber-Toothed Tiger (Denis Leary)  must journey with a coterie of their fellow soon-to-be extinct Ice Age pals to escape the coming flood. Manny is feeling depressed because it appears he might just be the only mammoth left in the whole world. And what's a mammoth to do if there are no other mammoths around? Mate with a sloth? I think not. None of the other animals has seen another mammoth in - well, in so long they don't remember when. Oh, and just to keep things exciting and give us some bad guys to worry about, as a glacier melts, two long-extinct monstrosities of sea creatures are thawing out and coming back to life. For added fun, they have lots of big, sharp teeth and don't look too neighborly.

As is the case in most sequels of animated films (Toy Story 2 and Shrek 2 being notable exceptions), Ice Age 2: The Meltdown just doesn't have a storyline as compelling as the original. It's as if all the good ideas got used up in the brainstorming for the first film, and then they shuffled through the rejected index cards from Round One to cobble together a script for Round Two. Maybe it's the lack of director Carlos Saldahna's Ice Age and Robots co-director, Chris Wedge, that made the difference. Maybe it's that Ice Age 2 had only one writer, Jon Vitti, whose previous work is targeted mostly at adults, and that none of the 89,000 folks credited for writing on Ice Age were present for the writing of the sequel. Whatever the case, Ice Age 2 lacks the heart and more subtle humor of its predecessor.

For instance, in Ice Age, we had a surprisingly interesting storyline: three Ice Age mammals - a mammoth, a sloth and a saber-toothed tiger - become unwitting allies in a quest to return a lost human baby to his tribe. The lynchpin of the first film was Diego, the saber-toothed tiger sent to intercept Manny and Sid's mission and guide them into a trap where his fellow saber-tooth baddies were lying in wait to kill the baby as an act of revenge against his father. There was this whole intriguing layer of morality woven into the film - would Diego betray Manny and Sid? Or would he side with them against his own tribe? Leary had plenty of lines in the original to input his patented snark without seeming crass, and he perfectly offset Ray Romano's occasionally annoying whine-factor. John Leguizamo, voicing Sid, was free to be as crazy as he wanted to be.  The interaction between all three worked very well, and the story had enough action and suspense to keep my kids glued to the screen.

Then along comes Ice Age 2. Now, if I were writing a sequel to Ice Age, I probably would have tried to work Diego's old gang into the storyline somewhere. After all, in the first film they're pretty much portrayed as the Mafiosos of the Ice Age, so is it really likely they'd let Diego's betrayal slide? Okay, sure, the impending flood is a good motivator to get things moving, but the way the story is drawn there's very little of the suspense that made Ice Age work. Put Diego's old gang in there and have them, I don't know, set a trap or something that could prevent Our Heroes from reaching safety. Oh, and while you're at it, give Denis Leary some funny lines and don't waste him.

Instead, what the filmmakers give us is this contrived romance between Manny and a confused she-mammoth named Ellie (Queen Latifah) who thinks she's an opossum. Manny, Diego and Sid team up with Ellie and her opossum brothers, Crash (Seann William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck), who are very protective of their "little" sister. Not that I'm intrinsically opposed to the idea of Manny getting a girlfriend, mind you. I just wish they'd done it minus the whole confused, "thinks she's an opossum" schtick, which felt like a desperate way to save the film in much the way that Ellen DeGeneres' performance as Dory saved Finding Nemo (Hey, you know what we really need here? A nutty chick character!) Queen Latifah does her best with the material, but it just felt rehashed to me, and I never really cared whether or not Ellie and Manny decided to get together for the sake of perpetuating their species or not. Besides, didn't Wooly Mammoths die out shortly after the end of the Ice Age anyhow? And wouldn't that pretty much render Manny's attempts at reproduction and romance, well, a little depressingly futile?

A significant part of the film, time-wise, is taken up with side bits about the squirrel and his nut, which kids and adults alike loved in the first film. That the squirrel sideline - which has pretty much nothing to do with the main story - had the kids in the Ice Age 2 screening more engaged than the main story, says a lot. There are also a couple of musical numbers that felt like they'd been worked up to take up more time. One of them - a scene with a passel of "mini-sloths" who want to make Sid their "fire king", felt so much like a rip-off of the Madagascar lemur scene, I was almost embarrassed for the filmmakers. The other song was even worse; when you're padding your story with musical tributes to Esther Williams and synchronized swimming to the tune of the "Cheese, Glorious Cheese" song (I never want to hear that tune in any film, ever again), you might want to rethink adding some meat to your storyline instead.

Bottom line: Ice Age 2: The Meltdown isn't the worst kids' film I've seen all year, but it's a pale shadow of the original, and  blatantly rips off several other kiddie flicks. If you're looking for a film to take your kids to, hunt down a screening of Duma instead, and save Ice Age 2: The Meltdown for the DVD release or pay-per-view. For a free screening it wasn't bad, but if I'd shelled out the usual $80-plus it costs to take our brood to a family film, I'd have probably, well, melted down.