REVIEW: 'The Nut Job' ★

Root for an animated jerk? Nuts to that, moviegoers

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'The Nut Job'

Scene from "The Nut Job." (Open Road Films / December 18, 2013)

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, and all that, but "The Nut Job" didn't work out that way. This 3-D animation job, a co-production of South Korea's Redrover Co. and the Canadian outfit ToonBox Entertainment, generates such little interest in the fates of its urban park critters, you may find yourself pondering mixed-use development schemes to rid the film of its key setting altogether.

Director and co-writer Peter Lepeniotis' movie comes from "Surly Squirrel," an animated short the filmmaker made nearly a decade ago. It wasn't much to look at and wasn't funny either, and in that film the titular rodent was an unrepentant punk.

A revised, ultimately redeemed version of the same squirrel returns to take the lead in "The Nut Job," this time voiced by Will Arnett.

The generic computer animation locates the story in a vague 1940s/early '50s universe of big, boxy automobiles, underworld gangland figures and phone calls that cost a nickel.

There are two narrative lines that crisscross. One follows Surly as he's banished from the park's threatened animal kingdom (Liam Neeson voices the raccoon leader) and, to get back in the park's good graces, his scheme to steal a winter's worth of food from a nut shop located suspiciously closely to a bank. Storyline No. 2 hews to the human world, and a plan to rob that bank.

How the two tales intertwine becomes the main point of theoretical interest in "The Nut Job." Other rodents come with the voices of Katherine Heigl (as Andie, the conflicted love interest for Surly) and, as a preening rival of Surly's, Brendan Fraser. Stephen Lang growls his way through the role of the chief human thug.

Big problem straight off: tone. The violence isn't slapsticky; it's just violent. Another problem: Since Surly, even the new, redeemable model, spends so much of the story being a flaming jerk, "The Nut Job" fights its protagonist's own charmlessness from the first scene. Turning a dislikable leading character a little less dislikable by the end credits sets an awfully low bar for this sort of thing.

Because a lot of the financing came from South Korea, over the end credits the unlikely pop star Psy pops up in computer-animated form to reprise "Gangnam Style" one more time. The script by Lorne Cameron and Lepeniotis pays lip service to the notion of community and family. But Surly is only that — surly — and "The Nut Job" feels not like an adventure, not like a job, but simply like a cynical expansion of an idea that barely worked at 11 minutes.

Kids deserve better. Even squirrels deserve better.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"The Nut Job" - One star

MPAA rating: PG (for mild action and rude humor)

Running time: 1:26

Opens: Friday

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