Film franchises are delicate things. There comes a point at which certain concepts feel played out, at which familiar characters seem tired as they go through the proverbial motions. Over time, it can feel like a film franchise has done just about everything. It becomes harder and harder to generate conflict, to motivate the characters to action, to come up with credible stakes.
The art of franchise escalation is fine. It is more nuanced than most will readily acknowledge. Coming up with an organic reasons for an ensemble to reteam and embark on a new adventure can be tough enough after the original film, but it becomes a little exhausting by time that the fourth film rolls around. There is a point where even enlisting the audience feels like an insurmountable challenge.
However, there are film franchises that do manage to do this. After all, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is comprised of over a dozen franchise films. The James Bond series is more than twenty films long, but it still periodically finds a new groove. It is not impossible for a film franchise to find new and exciting possibilities past its third entry. Even earlier this year, Creed is testament to the appeal of a new approach.
On the other hand, Ice Age: Collision Course is a film that opens with beloved squirrel Scrat hijacking a space ship while chasing his nut and setting an asteroid on a collision course with our protagonists.
It is tempting to want to read something of note into this basic set-up. Released so soon after Brexit threw the world into chaos, is Collision Course really a metaphor for the dangers chasing nuts toward global cataclysm? Is it a radical critique of unfettered greed? Is the entire franchise an extended exploration of Scrat’s journey to genocidal monster? Is it a reflection of the broader apocalyptic malaise running through popular culture, that even a film franchise set within an cataclysmic event must still build towards an interstellar apocalyptic climax?
This is obviously a bit more scrutiny than Collision Course can really withstand. The truth is that the film opens centred on Scrat because he remains the franchise’s breakout character. Scrat’s adventures have become increasingly absurd, to the point that the law of sequel escalation suggests that Scrat probably should have been in space at least a film ago. Tying Scrat’s misadventures into the asteroid plot thread allows the film to keep cutting back to him, and helps make him seem like a more significant (rather than tangential) character.
However, there is still something extraordinarily convenient about all this, which is true for a lot of the plotting decisions in Collision Course. The characters do not feel like characters as much as pieces to be moved from plot point to plot point, with little by the way of organic motivation. They are drawn into the orbit of one another not by good storytelling, but by franchise popularity. The film never even bothers to wonder why it seems to fall to the same handful of characters to save the world time and time again. Perhaps experience counts in that industry.
As with a lot of fourth films, there is a sense of franchise bloat to Collision Course. The film spends a considerable amount of time simply reintroducing familiar characters from the earlier film. The three-buddies-and-Scrat format of the original Ice Age seems positively quaint, as the cast has expanded to involve love interests and comic relief sidekicks and children and even children-in-law. To compound the issue, Collision Course decides that the only reasonable decision is to add more characters to the mix.
All these characters have to fight for space and attention in the film, which explains the loose nature of the plot. Collision Course is a fairly generic quest narrative in which most of the characters have generic motivations. The size of the cast causes a fairly ruthless efficiency to character development and pay-off. Most character arcs are effectively set-up in one scene, shuffled among a collection of other character-establishing scenes, and then paid off at the climax. Sid loses his girlfriend in his first scene; an hour and a half later, he finds another.
To be fair, there is a sense of self-awareness that mitigates some of these issues. When the obligatory one-dimensional antagonists show up, the film wallows in their generic motivations. Several characters draw attention to the fact that their dastardly plan makes absolutely no sense, but the film still needs bad guys… until it doesn’t. As with the lean nature of the character-centric scenes, all of this combines to make Collision Course feel a little shallow.
This shallowness causes issues. In a rather brilliant scene, Manny the Mammoth laments the fact that his daughter and her fiancé are planning on moving away. Trying to figure out the best way to prevent this from happening, Manny falls back on the familiar sitcom plot of trying to break up the relationship. Ellie responds by pointing out (correctly) that Manny’s plan is incredibly creepy and abusive. She even dismisses him as a “psychopath”, in a sequence that feels like a self-aware commentary on such questionable comedy logic.
However, Ellie immediately responds to the situation by concocting an elaborate plan to effectively manipulate the young couple (through a sustained campaign of fear) into remaining close to their parents. Manny doesn’t point out that this is just as creepy and abusive as his plan to break-up the couple, and there is a sense that the dissonance at play in the short sequence is not entirely intentional. Either way, it doesn’t matter. None of these emotional arcs are fully explored, because there is always another character who needs two minutes of focus.
To be fair, there is an extent to which Collision Course works as something akin to a modern day Looney Tunes. Collision Course works reasonably well from scene to scene, even allowing for the occasional expository lull. The best sequences stand quite apart from plot, as Scrat struggles with the laws of physics in outer space or Buck is reintroduced to audience members through an action sequence set to his own playful riff on Figaro. These sequences would almost work better free from the demand for an over-arching plot or the other dozen-or-so characters.
Collision Course is not a bad film. Independence Day: Resurgence is a far more effective critique of franchising than Collision Course will ever be. The most damning thing that can be said about Collision Course is just that it is unnecessary and a little boring in places. In fact, there’s a much more convincing argument for an anthology adventure rotating its focus around set pieces dedicated to the more dynamic characters, cut free from the obligation to plot a story around the larger cast.
The Ice Age franchise might need a little global warming to help break that glacier into more manageable chunks.