"THE NUT JOB 2: NUTTY BY NATURE" — 1½ stars — Voices of Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl, Maya Rudolph, Jackie Chan, Jeff Dunham; PG (action and some rude humor); in general release
It has been a weak summer for animation, heavy on sequels and light on originality. So it seems appropriate that "The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature" arrives in theaters as we drift toward the middle of August and the arrival of the new school year.
"Nut Job 2" is the follow-up to 2014's "Nut Job," which followed the exploits of a city squirrel and his cohorts as they took on a group of mobsters running a local nut store. The sequel finds the original hero Surly (voiced by Will Arnett) presiding over the now-abandoned store and its lifetime supply of food, which the local wildlife community is only too happy to enjoy.
The only holdout is Andie (Katherine Heigl), Surly's sort-of love interest and full-time wet blanket, who is silly enough to suggest that the park animals should forage for their food and preserve some kind of community work ethic. Her wishes are quickly validated when an explosion levels the nut store and evicts Surly and his bunch back to the city park where their adventures started.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, Liberty Park is in the crosshairs of a corrupt city mayor (Bobby Moynihan), who feels inspired to turn the green space into a cheap, corner-cutting but highly profitable theme park — Libertyland. Thus, "Nut Job 2" sees Surly and company confronting a different kind of corruption, which is threatening their very survival.
Familiarity with the original "Nut Job" is not required to follow the events of the sequel, but if you have seen the first, you'll note the return of several familiar voices. In addition to Arnett and Heigl, Maya Rudolph returns to voice Precious the dog, who gets a subplot connected to Frankie (Bobby Cannavale), the dog belonging to the mayor's obnoxious daughter. Jeff Dunham and Gabriel Iglesias are also back as Mole and Jimmy, respectively.
But even those familiar with the first film will have a tough time engaging with "Nut Job 2's" routine story, which struggles to give audiences anything they haven't seen before. Much of the humor feels tired and predictable, and the sequence that got the most laughs in the theater — a slow-motion shot where a drooling Frankie first falls for Precious — is little more than a rehash of an animation cliché.
Even "Nut Job 2's" new primary character — a tough-talking street mouse named Mr. Feng (voiced by Jackie Chan), who strains against his naturally cute exterior — feels like a recycled version of Kevin Hart's abrasive bunny character Snowball from last year's "Secret Life of Pets."
Unfortunately, even brief moments of energy, such as in a sabotage sequence set to Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild," are undone by gross-out gags like a repulsive regurgitation scene involving Precious and Frankie.
For all their own weaknesses, "Cars 3" and "Despicable Me 3" are still strides ahead of "Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature," which should be considered only by parents desperate to get the kids out of the house for a couple of hours, and even then, hopefully for matinee prices at most.
"The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature" is rated PG for action and some rude humor; running time: 91 minutes.