Way more fun than its mid-January release date would have you believe, The Nut Job is a delightfully goofy slapstick cartoon with a surprisingly dark heart. A noirish heist flick about a group of hungry animals attempting to rob a nut store in an effort to stockpile food for winter, it’s the kind of movie whose surface frivolity masks all sorts of interesting things going on underneath. Plus, it’s got a bizarre Psy cameo, so there’s that.
Heroes in children’s films often start out flawed — the better to learn the obligatory life lessons — but it’s rare to find one who’s an outright jerk. Even Gru from the Despicable Me films usually confines his villainy to poetic feats like stealing the moon. But “jerk” is a good way to describe the aptly named Surly Squirrel (voiced by the aptly cast Will Arnett). He’s not a haunted loner, or a misunderstood outcast, or even a ne’er-do-well dreamer. When we meet him, he’s planning to rob a nut vendor’s cart; he doesn’t want to do the honest work of gathering nuts for the winter, nor does he want to help out his fellow animals. Why the hell should he? He’s smarter and has more vision than the other parkland beasts.
Less the Road Warrior and more Ayn Randian egoist, Surly doesn’t think he needs anybody else’s help to survive. Certainly not the small collective of animals led by the seemingly wise, grave Raccoon (voiced by Liam Neeson). It’s no skin off Surly’s back that everyone else is about to starve, owing to a less-than-impressive nut haul for the winter. If you think there might be a crude dig at socialism here, you’re right, and as the film proceeds, it becomes more and more overt — like Rififi meets Animal Farm.
Surly’s eventual transformation into an upstanding, cooperative member of the community is a foregone conclusion. But the fact that the film chooses to make him the attention of our focus in the first place gives the story an added kick and brings The Nut Job closer to the crime films it playfully apes. After being banished from the park, and then being chased by a gang of rats, Surly lands smack against the front of Maury’s Nut Store. The shop itself is being used by a group of human thieves to dig a tunnel into the bank across the street. So, as the mobsters plot to rob the bank, Surly and a small cohort plot to rob the store itself. It’s a neat idea — an extended montage that intercuts the animals and the people planning their respective heists recalls Fritz Lang’s M and the way it intercut between the cops and the underworld — and it makes the film’s criminal milieu more than just a stylistic touchpoint. The gangster genre is one of the few accepted ways that American artists can make “bad people” their protagonists. (Consider the recent outrage over The Wolf of Wall Street’s so-called glorifying of financial malfeasance, from many folks who didn’t bat an eye over Goodfellas’ affectionate portrait of murderers.) The Nut Job slyly adopts that stance. This is a movie about animals (and people) out for themselves.
And it’s funny, in a rough but bracing way. The slapstick is surprisingly violent, though not threatening: It reminded me how much animation has moved away from the pile-of-bricks-landing-on-a-character’s-head style of Bugs Bunny and Road Runner. There’s no weight to anything here, and if you’re looking for a genuine, escalating sense of danger, you’re looking in the wrong place. The Nut Job is replete with flattenings, explosions, electrocutions, and all sorts of other physical humor. It’s dumb, brutal, funny stuff, embracing the chaotic, irresponsible spirit of its protagonist. It might not be particularly smart, or subtle, but it feels like the most genuinely mischievous kids’ movie in years.