There’s potential in the premise of a heist movie featuring 3-D animated park critters angling to get their paws on a cashew and peanut stash. Not that you’d expect “The Nut Job” to be “Ocean’s Eleven” in cartoon (or cartoonier) form. And no, the film doesn’t inspire complete ticket-buying confidence with its modest creative pedigree — routine cast, journeyman-animator director, obscure Korean production outfit — or its way-late reliance on “Gangnam Style,” naturally, to hype it all.
Just the same, you think of the twisty ingenuity the genre is so great at showcasing, and then you think about the ways that animation could really unfetter the scheming, and you hope for some fun. Disappointingly, despite some decent character design, this one just spins its wheels like rodents in a Habitrail, all flat action and meandering, uninspired storytelling.
Will Arnett voices Surly, a bristly loner squirrel who knows full well that he and his fellow city park denizens are facing a food crunch, but who’s got his own plan for dealing with it. You won’t catch him mapping foraging strategy with no-nonsense she-squirrel Andie (Katherine Heigl), lunk-headed he-squirrel Grayson (Brendan Fraser), group elder Raccoon (Liam Neeson), and the rest. But when Surly’s raid on a nut vendor’s cart ends up cutting a mayhem-filled swath through the park, he’s got no friends to defend him, and he’s banished to the great urban unknown across the street.
It’s a cruel new world filled with scary traffic and alley rats colorfully rendered like blacklight posters. But Surly also discovers that the vendor’s cart was actually connected to an entire nut emporium. (Cue angelic singing — or instrumental snippet of “Gangnam” — to accompany Surly’s self-styled joyful jig, a bit that actually works. Or at least it works better than an animated PSY’s tired closing-credits cameo, done in “Madagascar” dance party mode.) Surly works on tunneling into the shop, the shop’s gangster owners work on tunneling into the bank next door, Andie and Grayson get in on the action, and everything gets more complicated. And yet it doesn’t, as director Peter Lepeniotis and his co-writers deliver no surprises. The plot doesn’t take clever turns, the visual thrills aren’t all that thrilling, and you’re ultimately left to get your heist-movie kicks elsewhere. Maybe the “Ice Age” crew can hook up their acorn-chasing varmint with some burglar gear.