Making a successful feature length cartoon is a hard nut to crack. For every animated hit, a dozen sink without trace, relegated to being stuck on the DVD player just to keep the kids quiet on a wet afternoon. Fortunately, though clearly no Oscar contender, neither is Peter Lepeniotis’ harmless The Nut Job (2014) a dud. Surly (Canadian comic actor Will Arnett) the squirrel has been banished from the rodent community in the inner-city park where he lives. Desperate to find food to survive on the mean city streets Surly, and his rat friend Buddy (Robert Tinkler), discover heaven – the seemingly abandoned Nut Shop. Unknown to them, however, the shop is cover for a group of desperate bank robbers.
The Nut Job has plenty of the requirements for a potential hit – goofy characters, beautifully realised animation and a clever use of recognisable contemporary hit music which fits seamlessly with the overall production. A feeling of forties American noir permeates the work, embodied in the cityscape where the rodent friends find themselves pitted against all kinds of human and mechanical adversaries. This is also where one of the film’s best characters – head robber Percy ‘King’ Dimplewade’s (Stephen Lang, best-known as Avatar villain Miles Quaritch) girlfriend Lana (Cronenberg regular Sarah Gadon) – appears. A more lifelike embodiment of Hollywood screen siren Lana Turner would be hard to find, and Lana’s character holds almost everybody’s attention (cast and audience) when she arrives.
And yet, something is ultimately missing. The storyline – though frantic and offering plenty of opportunity for the usual slapstick jokes – is probably the film’s weakest aspect. One of the best things about Disney – the daddy of all animated producers – is the strength of their plots. Even their efforts based on well-known fairytales rework the stories in such a way that they seldom drag for what can often be quite long running times for a cartoon. The premise, on the other hand, is extremely limited: it’s 85-minute runtime could have seen cuts without losing anything whilst tightening its overall impact. Cartoon features are frequently touted month’s before release, but when they eventually hit cinemas are not always all they were cracked up to be. The Nut Job appears to have had a reasonably low profile release, and as such expectations for its success have not been overestimated, meaning the result is a pleasant – if untaxing – surprise.