The film is set in the fictional American town Oakton in 1959 (which, because it’s never explicitly clarified during the film itself, makes for a bizarre viewing experience if you didn’t know that beforehand), where the squirrels, groundhogs, mice, and other animals who live in the park are saving food the upcoming winter. Leader Raccoon (voiced by Liam Neeson, of “Taken 2” and “The Dark Knight Rises”) informs the community that they’re shockingly short on rations, so he sends out the resourceful, good-hearted Allie (voiced by Katherine Heigl, of “One for the Money”) and buffoonish, egotistical park “hero” Grayson (voiced by Brendan Fraser, of “Escape from Planet Earth”) to try and find something. Any nuts will do.
If they can wrestle them away from Surley (voiced by Will Arnett, of “Men in Black 3” and “The Secret World of Arrietty”), that is. A scheming, independent squirrel with a bad reputation among the park animals, Surley’s only friend is the rat Buddy (voiced by Robert Tinkler), who is often pulled into Surley’s elaborate schemes. But when their latest attempt to steal nuts from a street stand causes them to accidentally burn down the park’s oak tree, destroying all their food, Raccoon and the other citizens banish Surley, sending him into the surrounding city on his own.
“I don’t need anybody,” he snipes, but urban living is a very difficult thing. All humans are disgusted with Surley, thinking he’s a rat. Actual city rats are unwelcoming and threatening. And, truth be told, Surley is worried about setting aside food for winter. His only hope seems to be a nut store owned by the same men (gangsters, in fact) who owned the nut stand—men with their own criminal motives, men who are planning a heist of their own. Could they actually get away with their con involving nuts? And could Surley actually get away with his?
There are essentially two plots going on in “The Nut Job,” and the way they intersect is simple enough—the squirrels want the nuts and the gangsters are using the nuts—and the main question is whether Surley will help the park animals prepare for winter. (Since this is a children’s movie, there’s really no possibility that the gangsters will be successful in their attempt to rob a bank, and aside from their over-the-top New York accents, there’s nothing memorable about them anyway.) But underneath all the bathroom humor, and the bizarre scene when Surley and Buddy dance to Korean pop singer Psy’s song “Gangnam Style” (which wouldn’t exist in the 1959 setting of this movie, but whatever), there are some actually nice messages about banding together as a community, giving someone with a bad reputation the benefit of the doubt, and honoring friendships.
The relationship between Surley and Buddy is the most nicely nuanced, and it rejects the typically testosterone-heavy depictions of male friendships in film for something more realistic and believable for younger viewers. Although the Allie character is fairly extraneous (there’s some romantic tension between her and Surley, but overall she’s a bit of a repetitive nag), Grayson’s increasing confusion about who he is (it’s suggested that he is constantly concussed, during his “hero” status) has good value, and Fraser’s and Arnett’s voices work well together. You can guess where the Raccoon character is going because he’s voiced by the always nefarious Neeson, but while that storyline is expected, it’s straightforward enough for children to understand.
That’s the thing about “The Nut Job,” really—it is simplistic, it doesn’t bother itself with a romantic subplot like so many other children’s movies do, the 3-D used isn’t too obtrusive (nuts and popcorn flying at your face are the extent of it), and the villains have obvious schemes that aren’t increasingly complicated. It’s a very A-to-B-to-C kind of movie, but for younger viewers, that’s not a bad thing. It’s not extremely memorable, but it’s enjoyable enough, and you should definitely stay for the credits. As confusing as the presence of Korean pop star Psy is in “The Nut Job,” seeing some animated squirrels and groundhogs dancing to his hit song, “Gangnam Style,” even though it is a couple of years old, was far more amusing than I thought.
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