The screening for “The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature” started 45 minutes late. This tardiness is worth mentioning. To dangle a film in front of anyone is to create a frustrated viewer, antsy and agitated. At a certain point I was ready to simply pack up my belongings and go home. “I tried to watch ‘The Nut Job 2'”, I told myself, “but the universe wouldn’t let me.” An act of divine intervention.
Then, just as I was calling it quits, animated images appeared on the screen. The squirrels wanted to be seen. And they were! In spite of the projection missteps, and my initial impatience, “The Job 2: Nutty by Nature” kinda works. In fact, it didn’t take long for this fleet-footed sequel, spry and charming, to win me over.
Writer-director Cal Brunker (“Escape from Planet Earth”) picks up where the first film left off. Upon the closing of a local nut shop, the park animals of Oakton City take up new residence in the basement of the dilapidated store. Inside are enough nuts to last a lifetime. Culinary paradise.
The creatures are led by Surly (voiced by Will Arnett), a purple squirrel who seems to have just learned sarcasm and is intent on employing it. For the opening minutes, all is well in Oakton. At last everyone has enough food. Perhaps more than enough. Then tragedy strikes.
The nut shop blows up. No one was minding the boiler. The mistake leads to disarray. Without a home, the animals retreat back to nature. But even the park is not safe anymore. The Mayor (Bobby Moynihan) has a plan to turn the park into profit: “the greatest amusement park ever,” he says under his diabolical laugh.
There is no name for The Mayor. This is, in part, one of the issues with Brunker’s screenwriting. He is only evil, a symbol of rampant capitalism and greed. Shaped liked an outsized oval, The Mayor putzes around with his Veruca Salt-y daughter, Heather (Isabella Moner, “Transformers: The Last Knight”). Together they scream at everyone in sight.
It’s true that in children’s fare, but also in most movies, there needs to be an easily definable antagonist. Someone (or something) to test the limits and abilities of our hero. By that metric, The Mayor succeeds. (It just would’ve been more dynamic for the character to be fleshed-out, and his motivations understood.) His sinister politicking — in which he apparently operates as some kind of mayoral dictator — causes the animals to fight back.
If the original “Nut Job” was about the emergence of a single hero, the sequel is about a collective banding together to combat the powers that be. This is the film’s greatest strength. Brunker insists on teamwork within the script. Surly needs help from Precious (Maya Rudolph), a pug with some toughness. And Mr. Feng (Jackie Chan), the no-nonsense leader of the street mouse gang (they don’t like to be called “cute”). And Andie (Katherine Heigl), a wise red squirrel who wants the rest of the animals to embrace their roots. The list of teammates goes on.
While the crooked Mayor hopes to change the landscape of Oakton, the animals are formidable opponents. Brunker makes some not so subtle (but still noble) comments on the rise of gentrification here. The park is theirs. It’s where they’re from and it’s where they belong. No egotistical leader will take it away.
It’s because of subtext like this that I feel inclined to support “The Nut Job 2.” Its politics are humanitarian. It’s pro-environment, pro-animal life, and anti-consumerism. In short: Democrats will love it, Republicans will want to love it, but won’t, and everyone else will probably just be pleased to see quick-witted talking squirrels.
And yet, after all, this is a children’s movie. Left, right, and center is not on their minds. There was something encouraging about watching grade schoolers in my screening respond so rapturously to the movie. They laughed at The Mayor’s mendaciousness, not with it. There was silence in a couple of the film’s more moving moments in which animals are fearing for their life. Kids are kids, but they’re not unobservant spectators. There’s a mindfulness to both the film and its prospective audience that gives some hope.
Personally, the question for myself remains: Did I like “The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature” because my critical faculties were decimated prior to entry, or were my critical faculties decimated by “The Nut Job 2”? I don’t know. All I remember is my smile walking out of the theater.