If you’re going to make cartoons about critters, the late Chuck “Looney Toons” Jones used to preach, build them around the animal’s chief concern — survival. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are always avoiding the shotgun and the stew pot. Wile E. Coyote is desperate for a dinner of road runner.
That principle pays off in “The Nut Job,” a surprisingly simple, funny and often cute slapstick comedy about a squirrel planning a nut heist so that he’ll have enough food to last through winter.
Surly (Will Arnett, the perfect voice for cartoons) has always lived just for himself, which irks the other animals of Liberty Park. Chipmunks and mice, moles and groundhogs, they all stock up for the winter, collectively, in a system overseen by Raccoon (Liam Neeson). But Surly and his silent rat pal Buddy are every animal-for-himself guys. Surly’s schemes never involve sharing.
Contrast Surly with his fellow squirrel Grayson (Brendan Fraser), because the red squirrel Andie (Katherine Heigl) and every other animal in the park does. The dashing, dopey Grayson is all about heroics, and looking good as he saves the day.
An epic failure to steal a street vendor’s nut cart gets Surly labeled “a clear and present danger” to the others, so he is banished from the park. He destroyed the other animals’ winter survival stash. Is Surly — con artist, thief and bully to pigeons — anxious to make good on what he’s cost everyone? Not on your life.
And when he runs across the shop that the nut cart came from, he figures this huge stash is his. It’ll take blackmail by Andie, or worse, to get him to share.
But Surly’s caper runs right up against what the human owners of the nut shop have in mind. They’re wise guys out to rob the bank across the street. The animals, with Surly’s grudging cooperation, must race the robbers to see who can pull off his heist first.
The sight gags have a marvelous thunder-clap suddenness to them. Yeah, we can see the squirrel smacked against the windshield stuff coming. But animated movies live and die on their pace, and this one clips along.
The one-liners aren’t the best — “Is that mange, or Bubonic Plague you’re wearing?” But there are just enough of them to get by.
Visual riffs on cops and donuts, the poor choice of pug as guard dog (Maya Rudolph), a violently testy Girl Scout and plenty of “throw nuts and squirrels at the 3-D screen” jokes make “The Nut Job” kid-friendly.
And if that fails to do the trick, throw in a few cut-the-cheese jokes. Yeah, groundhogs are flatulent.
Veteran animator Peter Lepeniotis, a Pixar vet expanding a short film he made years ago, ensures that the animation is quite good. And there’s an adorable closing credits dance-off that underlines the film’s Korean production lineage.
So no, it’s not Pixar or Dreamworks or Disney or Blue Sky. But “The Nut Job” is still better than any animated film released in the doldrums of January has a right to be.