Animated animals have long been used as cuddly, fluffy stand-ins for actual human beings and their fraught interactions, and director Peter Lepeniotis' 'The Nut Job doesn’t break from that tradition in the slightest, using the hungry inhabitants of a sunny park to frame up an allegory about political machinations and maneuvering.

No. Really. That’s what 'The Nut Job,' an animated film about squirrels trying to steal nuts from a local nut shop, is about. Politics.

It should come as no surprise that the film was partially financed by the government of South Korea, which seems to be the motivating factor behind the use of the musical stylings of South Korean pop star Psy (he even pops up in the film’s end credits, an animated pony-dancing maniac that’s both totally bizarre and horrifyingly amusing) in the film. If the advancement of the beloved singer (and the continued use of his lone crossover hit, "Gangnam Style," which otherwise exited the public consciousness months ago) doesn’t quite drive home the influence of the South Korea government in the film, perhaps this just might: ‘The Nut Job,’ for all its animated giddiness and slapstick humor, is really about the dangers of both socialism and power-hungry dictators. Grab the kids!

The action of the film is organized around a renegade independent (Surly the squirrel, voiced by Will Arnett) who only looks out for himself and has no desire or need to help serve the rest of inhabitants of the park, who are all at the mercy of a seemingly benevolent dictator (Raccoon, voiced by Liam Neeson) who demands that they do everything “for the park!” On the surface, the organization that holds together both Raccoon’s unquestioned leadership and the very structure of life within the park’s ecosystem seems idyllic, balanced even, with Raccoon, his lackey Mole, and his Angry Birds-esque cardinal compatriot filling up the stores from the contributions of all the park’s animals in order to safely feed everyone during the long winter. It certainly sounds like a good idea – everyone doing what they can to help everyone else – and it’s Surly who seems like the stooge (at least at first).

Surly is, unquestionably, a bit of a punk. An outcast because he won’t conform, Surly has little respect for or interest in any other animals – from the innocent pigeons he upends as they coo away on a wire to his mute best buddy, Buddy the rat – and it’s little surprise that the rest of the park’s animals, who all willfully contribute to the good of the whole, don’t like him much. After pulling yet another prank that endangers the entire park (thanks to an explosion that completely destroys the wise old oak tree the animals have been dutifully filling with food), Surly is banished to life in the big city. The only person (well, animal) who has any interest in taking a fair approach to the banishment is lady squirrel Andie (voiced by Katherine Heigl), who begs her friends to pursue justice through legal proceedings (trials appear to happen quite frequently within the world of ‘The Nut Job,’ oddly enough), who is almost instantly voted down by an angry mob that boots Surly out of, yes, Liberty Park.

Life in the city isn’t easy for Surly, and he’s soon so terrified of his new lifestyle that he decides to do whatever it takes to get back in the good graces of the park inhabitants (or is he just looking for food? it’s hard to tell, simply because ‘The Nut Job’ switches up its characters’ motivations at random and with the minimum of clarity) – even if that includes robbing a nearby nut store being used as the base of operations by a group of idiotic bank robbers. Soon, Andie and the park’s moronic resident hero squirrel, Grayson (perfectly voiced by Brendan Fraser), have also been dispatched into the city to find food – perhaps at their friendly neighborhood bank robber hideout/nut store?

‘The Nut Job’ has some clever gags within it, even if they’re never fully capitalized (uh, socialized?) on. For one, there’s the nifty juxtaposition of the animals’ nut heist and the bad guys’ bank heist, one that should result in lots of fun visual tricks and amusing treats, but that eventually just leads to more confusion and lack of cohesion. The film is never afraid from taking the most obvious joke and running with it (plenty of characters are called “nuts” in the film), but that often results in some genuine laughs. At its best, ‘The Nut Job’ has a ditzy, slapsticky feel to it that keeps it moving along, despite its clunky messaging. The film even makes a visual gag about that smirking cardinal and a “fancy cat show” work, and a pug named Precious (voiced by Maya Rudolph) is a highlight. The quality of the actual animation itself is fine, suitable enough when it comes to purposely ugly humans and dashingly be-furred animals.

Yet the film’s messaging is so heavy-handed that it seems poised to threaten the whole endeavor, sinking the enjoyment of what should be its target audience – kids. Plenty of characters in ‘The Nut Job’ act out in ways that will be both troubling and confusing to the younger set, and even if it’s clear to older viewers what the film is going for, that doesn’t make the end result any more enjoyable or, yes, any more delightfully nutty.


'The Nut Job' opens in theaters on January 17.

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