Usually the last film in a trilogy marks the creative end of the franchise. See Godfather, Matrix, Spider-Man, Shrek, Terminator, and most other film series. Then there are those rare exceptions, such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, that manage to capture the essence of the first two films and still seem fresh. You can add Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs to the latter group.
While the prehistoric animated comedy is beginning to show its age, there are still enough likeable moments and laugh-out-loud jokes to help the franchise skate by as an entertaining 90 minutes.
The movie begins with its familiar characters in various soap-opera states of dilemma.
Woolly mammoths Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) are expecting their first child any moment, and Manny is fretting over the birth and making a new home for his baby mammoth.
Manny's focus on fatherhood has left pal Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) feeling excluded, and pining for a family of his own. Meanwhile, Diego the sabre-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) is feeling more like a housebroken cat than a ferocious carnivore, so he opts to go solo again to gain back his predatory edge.
Shortly after Diego leaves his pals' makeshift and misfit herd, Sid discovers three giant eggs abandoned in an underground ice cavern. Feeling a growing paternal instinct, he takes the eggs back to his cave to raise as his own, even drawing sloth faces on the shells. A day later three baby Tyrannosaurus rex pop out of the eggs. The cute infant dinos embrace Sid as their mom until their real mother, an angry T. rex, shows up in the ice region looking for her eggs and terrorizing the mammal community in the process.
Once the mama T. rex locates her babies, she takes them - and Sid - back with her to an underground valley of lush vegetation, warm air, and not-so-extinct dinosaurs that, somehow, the Ice Age missed. Manny, Ellie, and Diego chase after the T. rex in an effort to save Sid, only to quickly realize they're in over their heads in this mysterious place.
The dinosaur valley is full of dangers, including giant carnivorous plants, rivers of lava, and the most fearsome beast in the valley, a giant albino Baryonyx named Rudy, with a crocodile-shaped mouth full of razor-sharp teeth and menacing claws that even gives the mama T. rex cause to flee.
But a weasel survivalist named Buck (Simon Pegg, who more or less steals the movie from the other actors) leaps to Manny and company's aid and agrees to help them find their friend. Buck had a run-in with Rudy years before and has a score to settle with the dino.
As for Scrat, the lovable acorn-obsessed prehistoric rodent returns, but this time he's not alone. He's found love in the form of a female Scratte, who shares his obsession with acorns, forcing him to choose between his heart and his stomach.
The animation in Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs isn't as spectacular as you want it to be, especially in the hidden valley. The screen should come alive with the wonders of a CG land that time forgot, but it's often kind of static.
It's the same for the 3-D effect. Most 3-D movies have at least one or two eye-catching scenes where something leaps out in the audience, but Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs never takes full advantage of the technology.
But the story is entertaining enough and the jokes are plentiful, thanks to co-directors Carlos Saldanha, who has helmed all three Ice Age movies, and Mike Thurmeier. The two successfully keep the movie from going through the motions, as most third-parters do.
At this point, considering the prehistoric mammals have survived humans, a dangerous glacial thaw, and dinosaurs, perhaps a fourth Ice Age movie would be pushing the franchise too far. (Is there really anything left for the characters other than becoming frozen then discovered and thawed thousands of years later by modern-day scientist?) At least for the third installment, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs proves there's still life in the animated franchise.