“So much for peaceful protests!,” an animated squirrel announces during the first act of “The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature,” before forcefully attacking an intruding bulldozer with his tiny squirrel teeth. It’s likely the year’s most unexpected endorsement of violent disobedience — and one that, at least temporarily, pays off in the context of the animated sequel — but it’s also par for the course for a series that’s already rooted in political discourse, as explained by the machinations of some clever squirrels. Tackling heady issues in the guise of a kids’ movie is nothing new for the burgeoning “Nut Job” franchise, which memorably took on (and took down) the virtues of socialism in the first film, but “The Nut Job 2” goes full throttle on the timely stuff, resulting in a (slightly) more thoughtful and entertaining outing.
The newest entry into the franchise picks up soon after the events of the first, though a curious number of details and characters have been swept away in service to this new story: While “The Nut Job” ended with its furry creatures making their way back to a (newly socialism-free!) park, squirrel leader Surly (voiced by Will Arnett) learning the importance of selflessness, and a human character taking over the local Nut Shop, “The Nut Job 2” opens with said shop falling into disarray (and its human owner nowhere to be found), leaving the creatures with their very own private cache of seemingly unlimited nuts to savor (including plenty of animated product placement). As such, the animals have become fat, lazy, and totally without sense. Surly, it seems, is very happy and hasn’t retained much in the way of big, movie-made lessons.
However, squirrel pal Andie (voiced by Katherine Heigl) is still bent on retaining her essential squirrel-ness, and implores Surly and co. to remember her favorite maxim: “Hard work always pays off.” Her attempts to deliver that message are met with crickets, and Surly seems wholly unmoved. (Later, she’ll scream, “There are no shortcuts in life!” and even the crickets don’t stick around to sound off on it.) While “The Nut Job” pushed a message that teamwork is good (but socialism is not), “The Nut Job 2” is more focused on dismantling personal and governmental greed — through any means necessary.
Strange happenstance forces the squirrels (and chipmunks and groundhogs and other related rodents) back into their park and away from the lusty, peanut butter-y embrace of the Nut Shop, where they mostly flounder and whine about being hungry. Meanwhile, the city’s fat cat mayor (energetically voiced by Bobby Moynihan) — a curiously chubby, orange-haired man who doesn’t seem to have much in the way of political experience, though he does have an overbearing young daughter — hits upon an idea to make money off the last remaining bit of marketable land: Liberty Park, which he wants to turn into a decrepit amusement park, built entirely to line his pockets (and possibly kill a few constituents while he’s at it). His unbridled anti-environmentalism doesn’t seem to raise the hackles of the public (though one plucky journalist eventually asks a handful of questions, only to be squashed), but the park’s animal residents are pissed.
Turns out, greed is great when you’re living high on the hog (or the nut), but not so hot when you’re the little guy getting pushed down. Enter the resistance chapter of “The Nut Job”s unwavering interest in delivering political discourse in a kid-friendly package, as Surly and his pals start a riot in the hopes of shutting down the creation of so-called “Liberty Land,” including sabotaging heavy equipment, roughing up construction workers, and making it clear that they’re not leaving their place of residence so that a portly politician can benefit from its natural splendor. That’s the first twenty or so minutes.
Like its predecessor, “The Nut Job 2” struggles to keep its momentum up in the face of a strangely loaded plot and ever-changing motivations for its various characters, particularly Surly, who zings between faithful friend and self-involved jerk with all the energy of a manic hamster. Its messages are delivered in increasingly heavy-handed fashion, eventually culminating in the discovery of yet another group of maligned rodents who were also ousted from their home because of the capitalistic demands of humans. (These guys know kung fu, and are led by Jackie Chan, a hell of a movie star to cram into a sprawling film’s last act.)
By then, even the youngest members of the film’s audience will get the — important, though indelicately delivered — point that greed is nasty and killing animals and pillaging land to make money is a bad thing. It will again be driven home by a larger-scale rehashing of the film’s first attempt at violent resistance, with the squirrels and other creatures going absolutely HAM on a crumbling Liberty Land. It is both totally bonkers, and deeply satisfying (even an off-kilter moment when it appears that the mice are eating a human villain can’t derail this fun).
Yet even the most compelling lessons of “The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature” (what a world) don’t quite stick, if only because they’re delivered in such a slapdash package. One minute, the film is extolling the virtues of resisting evil overlords, the next, an animated dog is puking up his dinner as an act of canine affection (this happens twice). For all its big ideas, it’s not nearly smart enough to land with a punch, and the dumb laughs are so dumb that it robs the film from any sense of having greater aspirations. While shoving big messages inside animated offerings isn’t a new concept by any stretch of the imagination, “The Nut Job 2” is uncomfortable with its most ambitious concepts, bookending them with gross-out nonsense that doesn’t seem engineered to appeal to anyone.
They’re squirrels, but also they have high-minded expectations of what government should do. It’s a love story, but it also involves vomiting kibble up at will. These are uneven ideas, and an worse premise. It’s all a bit, well, nuts.
“The Nut Job 2” is in theaters on Friday, August 11.