The Nut Job is an animated comedy set among our furry friends in an urban park, circa fall 1949. Winter is coming, and, under the stern but fair leadership of Raccoon (voiced by Liam Neeson) and his Marxist-Leninist political order, an assortment of squirrels, moles, groundhogs, rodents and birds go about the urgent business of gathering and storing food for the winter, for the collective good of all.
There is a rebel (reactionary?) against this society, however: Surly Squirrel (voiced by Will Arnett) resists Raccoon’s leadership (and park law) and instead, with help of his endearing silent friend Rat, gathers nuts only for himself.
Surly’s selfishness quickly earns him exile from the park. This turns out not to be a bad thing, however, when Surly and Rat discover a shuttered nut shop that still has a storehouse of every kind of nut imaginable. Just when they’re about to settle in, however, agents of Raccoon discover the nut store, too—and the game is on.
There are further complications, of course. The nut store has been taken over by a gang of bank robbers intent on tunneling into the vault next door; their machinations—and their dog—give Surly as many headaches as his old rivals from the park.
The character Surly was created for a 2005 short film by director Peter Lepeniotis. He’s a pretty good little squirrel, and building a movie around him isn’t the worst idea anyone ever had. The computer animation is fine; some of the slower moments allow viewers to appreciate the beauty of the character design and background layouts. And special mention must be made of the human characters, who are all nicely cartoony and appealing. Still, the laughs were infrequent and the chase scenes by the numbers. The best character was Surly’s friend Rat, probably because he doesn’t yap.
Not that the characters are bad because of the voice acting; Neeson, Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Katherine Heigl, Jeff Dunham, Stephen Lang and Maya Rudolph all do fine jobs. It’s just that they’re not given anything interesting to say.
If you think that the lesson of the film would be that Surly learns how to become a part of the harmonious collective, you’re wrong. The collective itself is exposed as a sham, with Raccoon revealed as more Stalin than Lenin. Surly does, however, learn to share. He even says so out loud, so the kids don’t miss the point.