The relentlessly gimmicky use of 3-D in Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs helps reduce what could have been a genial piece of slapstick into a cartoon that's not just in-your-face, but in-your-eyeballs. You should have been able to treat this film as a grab-bag and pull out some plums. Instead it goes grabbing after you. The film doesn't hurl things at the camera in the manner of Monsters vs. Aliens. But any snout, tongue or tail that lends itself to stretching and snapping gets quite a workout in this movie. By the end you feel as if you've been caught between the strings of a toy ukulele.

The movie starts out as a satire of gung-ho fatherhood. When Manny the woolly mammoth (Ray Romano) and his wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) get ready for parenthood, they ignite uncontrollable parental feelings in Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo), who ends up hatching three dinosaur eggs; they also catalyze a mid-life panic in saber-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary), who fears that alternative-family life will make him lose his special carnivore edge.

But the movie shifts radically when the dinos' T. Rex mother comes looking for her babes. She drags them and Sid to a lost world beneath the ice. Mannie, Ellie, Diego and possums Crash (Seann William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck) then go under the frozen surface themselves, to rescue Sid.

With the glorious exception of Horton Hears a Who, story development has never been the strong suit of Blue Sky Studios, the production company behind the Ice Age movies. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs takes this weakness to new lows. John Huston used to say that if you hit a great script like a gong, its theme would resound through every scene. Ice Age picks its theme up and puts it down at will.

The movie offers the poorest possible fit of stars to story line. When animated characters are as limited as the leads in this film, who wants them to grow up? If they were any less frisky they'd really be extinct.

It's revealing that in a movie about advancing maturity, the most engaging character is a veritable Peter Pan of the animal world: Buck, the wiry, swashbuckling, one-eyed weasel who makes the dinosaur world his prairie oyster. The British comic actor Simon Pegg, who plays him, has compared Buck to Captain Ahab and his albino dinosaur nemesis Rudy, who took out his eye, to Moby Dick, the Great White Whale. But they're more like Pan pitted against a creature who's like Captain Hook and the Neverland crocodile put together.

Pegg emits that great-comedian glow that sometimes just lasts for a few years. He even has a glitter in his voice, which is great for Ice Age. He plays Buck as a mad Cockney and helps make his antics agreeably nonsensical. He turns a stone into a cell-phone to call his imaginary girlfriend and talks to a plant as a best friend. He's got freshness and ebullience, and if Blue Sky has any sense, they'll spin Buck off the way Marvel did Wolverine, only better, and with different directors.

And then there's Scrat, the ratlike squirrel still in pursuit of the Ice Age's one acorn. With curved fangs, enormous, googly eyes, and hands and feet that alternately extend like a ballerina's or claw into frozen surfaces like rusty ice picks, Scrat perfectly embodies hysteria. Desperation is his emotional base; any respite he wins is momentary. He's the kind of hybrid creation that's always been a mainstay of animation, mixing recognizable human and animal behavior with outrageous action.

In Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, the moviemakers give him a lover and a rival for that acorn in one pretty package: a red flying squirrel dubbed Scratte (to rhyme with saute). Some of their riffs are riotous, including an Apache dance so savage you'd never get away with it in live-action.

But midway through the movie, I thought the filmmakers were exploiting them just to spice the action up. Ace cartoon-makers manage to keep their characters fresh. The directors of Ice Age use them up.

Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

(20th Century Fox). Voiced by Ray Romano, Queen Latifah, John Leguizamo. Directed by Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier. Rated PG-13 for some mild rude humor and peril. Time 94 minutes.

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