Ice Age has its own universe, and it turns out to be a lot of fun

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is the best of the three films about our friends in the interspecies herd of prehistoric heroes. And it involves some of the best use of 3-D I’ve seen in an animated feature.

Once again

Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

Three and a half stars

Rated: PG (for some mild rude humor and peril)

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is the best of the three films about our friends in the interspecies herd of prehistoric heroes. And it involves some of the best use of 3-D I’ve seen in an animated feature.

It also introduces a masterstroke that essentially allows the series to take place anywhere: There is this land beneath the surface of the Earth, you see …

Well, if there can be one land, there can be any number of lands, including not only this one, but maybe a portal in time leading to the future, or one in space, leading to another planet.

We can maybe expect Manny and Ellie in Vegas, or Scrat on Mars. This particular land looks a great deal like a primeval jungle, if such a wilderness had lava falls as well as waterfalls.

All of our friends are back, and some new ones, including a ferocious T-Rex and a sexy rival for Scrat the squirrel, named Scratte, accent grave upon the “e.” As befits this land before time, Scrat and Scratte are sabre-toothed squirrels.

But logic like this is of no use in a movie where Sid the sloth (voice by John Leguizamo) adopts three dinosaur eggs and plans to raise the babies.

That’s how they all end up underground in the Hollow Earth, the land Edgar Rice Burroughs name Pellucidar, and I guess with a place like that, you can name it anything you want.

The mother dinosaur comes looking for her hatchlings, grabs them and Sid, and disappears under the surface. An all-for-one, one-for-all spirit has grown among our friends, who give chase: Manny and Ellie the woolly mammoths (Ray Romano and Queen Latifah), Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) and the possums Eddie and Crash (Josh Peck and Seann William Scott). They meet Buck the weasel (Simon Pegg), who has an eye patch and is obsessed with a Great White Dinosaur.

In the Ice Age films, the tiger coexists with edible species, but dinosaurs aren’t covered by the terms of the truce, and this one is so big it could eat even a woolly mammoth in one chomp.

That sets us up for the staple of the series — chase scenes involving dizzying falls, catapults into the sky, close shaves and possible digestion. This is pure invention, and unlike the monotonous chase sequences in some animation, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is tirelessly inventive.

Carlos Saldanha, writer of the 2002 film and co-director of the (disappointing) Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006), is the director this time, and many of his sequences are in the spirit of the brilliant Scrat-and-acorn scene that opened the first Ice Age.

That includes one in which Scrat, Scratte and the acorn are trapped inside floating bubbles. The acorn sings a tune to express how alone an acorn must sometimes feel. An acorn that talented, you don’t want to eat it all at once.

I thought the 3-D was done well. I remain unconvinced by the process. You have to fool with the glasses, the brightness is dimmed and so on.

But I was surprised how well Dawn of the Dinosaurs implements it. It creates much less of a distracting superfluous dimension, and more skillfully makes the whole image seem to belong together.

The movie is also widely being shown in 2-D, and if you want to save a few bucks, that’s the way to go.

Roger Ebert is a critic for The Chicago Sun Times.

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