Will Arnett chillaxes as a squirrel out for himself in "The Nut Job." Credit: Toonbox
‘The Nut Job’ Director: Peter Lepeniotis Voices of: Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl Rating: PG 2 (out of 5) Globes
Except for the ones aimed exclusively at the aggressively young, every children’s movie is secretly for adults. They are of course made by adults, and usually by adults who understand that it’s adults who have to take children to see them. But they also tend to impart values, be they general, Aesop-y ones — don’t be a jerk, family is important, don’t get high on your own supply, etc. — or more esoteric. On the face of it, “The Nut Job” — a nice international production about the animal denizens of an urban park in what looks like San Francisco, maybe — is about the importance of sharing and not being a greedy loner.
But it’s more than that. In fact, it’s an elaborate allegory for our current socio-political climate, specifically the debate over working together versus looking out for ourselves. It comes down on one side (the former), but not fully. It’s more complicated than that — or more complicated than expected from a movie that ends with an animated Psy appearing to do "Gangnam Style" for no discernible reason. Will Arnett voices Surly, a not terribly surly squirrel who’s nonetheless terminally out for No. 1. When the fellow denizens of a city park — led by a raccoon named Raccoon (voice of Liam Neeson) — find themselves lacking sufficient food for the winter, Surly laughs at them, all the while venturing on his own to find food for himself. So they kick him out of the park.
Released into the dangerous city streets, where lurk fearsome, gnarly rats and the like, Surly happens upon a building with an excess of nuts. He doesn’t quite realize this, but we do: These nut sacks will be used as decoys in the latest heist by a gang of old school bank robbers. (In fact, the film sometimes feels like it’s set in the 1940s for no purpose than why not.) This means there are effectively two plots going on at once that only occasionally criss-cross: the theft of the nuts and the theft of bank money.
It’s not un-clever, nor is the allegory itself, which reaches a spoilerable complication in its third act that makes it more than just a homily about sharing. And yet is it worth commending a kiddie picture for being weirdly sort of trenchant about a current social debate? Only up to a point it is. The truth of the matter is “The Nut Job” gets a bit too twisted in its narrative twistiness — not confusing or complex, just clumsy, in need of streamlining. And it’s not very funny. The humor is broad and only for non-discerning children. Brendan Fraser plays a hammy squirrel, which should tell you everything. Meanwhile, Katherine Heigl voices one of those uptight female stereotypes that unaccountably refuse to die out. Not everything about “The Nut Job” is progressive or smart.