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‘Ice Age’ Warms Up to Dinos

When science and cinema collide, the story wins.

The makers of Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs had to fully embrace that idea for their franchise - especially Part 3, opening Wednesday.

They know, of course, that by the time woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers roamed the Earth, the Tyrannosaurus rex existed only as a very extinct memory. But for the second sequel, they needed a fresh way to appeal to Ice Age's primary audience.

Mingling factual prehistoric creatures with computer-animated fantasy paid off for them before: The original Ice Age in 2002 and its 2006 sequel grossed a combined $371.7 million. And as much as youngsters enjoy Ray Romano's Manny the mammoth and that nutty Scrat, they really, really love dinosaurs - maybe even more in 3-D.

"Even though there are none around anymore, they are the closest things to dragons and other mythical creatures that we have," says co-director Mike Thurmeier. "There's a sense of wonder about them that feeds the imagination."

As director Carlos Saldanha says, "When I mention to kids that this film has dinosaurs, their eyes open up and they say, 'That's so cool.' That kind of reaction definitely overcomes the logic of it."

But the decision to go the dinosaur route did not come without a warning.

"It's funny. When we did the first Ice Age, a paleontologist told us, 'Whatever you do, don't use dinosaurs,' " Saldanha says.

But with Dawn, the animators saw an opportunity to do more of a what-if adventure, "like finding the giant ape in King Kong or a Shangri-la in the middle of snow," he says.

The presence of the behemoths is explained by a twist in time: They're found lurking beneath the ice in a tropical lost world after Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) discovers and "adopts" a trio of dino eggs.

'Delight' for new animals

What was character designer Peter de Sève's reaction when he learned dinosaurs were going to mingle with the mammoths?

"Delight," says the artist behind the look of the computer-animated menagerie for all three movies.

"Over the course of the first two films, I cleaned out the fossil record as far as Ice Age mammals were concerned. I wondered where to turn next to find fresh creatures. By setting this one in a lost world, it opened a whole new menu."

De Sève tried to be faithful to facts when possible, but he isn't too nervous about veering too far from science. He explains, "The first time we had a paleontologist come to the studio, he said his favorite character was the Scrat, which is the least realistic. That is when we relaxed."

Besides, animation and dinosaurs go way back, at least to 1914, when newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay brought dancing, tree-munching Gertie to life as part of a vaudeville act.

De Sève is well aware of the historical precedents he was up against.

"I thought, 'How can I make some of these dinosaurs both familiar and fresh at the same time, and have them exist in the Ice Age universe?' It was an opportunity to do it my way."

Adding a little color

His way involved portraying a few of the lesser-known dinos on-screen, such as the slow-moving, armored kentrosaur, a variation on the stegosaurus with a long, turkeylike neck, and the bulky, club-tailed ankylosaur.

"We did a twist on a velociraptor, the guanlong, that are based on fossils found in China," he says of ferocious predators who threaten mammoth Ellie (Queen Latifah) as she's giving birth. "It looks like a nasty raptor with a spike on its muzzle and spinelike quills coming out from its neck."

De Sève also had the freedom to shake up his color palette as the action moved to a warmer clime.

"It was great to have characters in a lush, green, exotic world," he says. "The dinosaurs didn't have to be just brown. You can take liberties because no one knows what color they were. The guanlong, for instance, is an iridescent blue with orange pinstriping."

In this post-Jurassic Park era, however, dinos are required to give a dramatic performance. Simply roaming about and being enormous won't do, even in a PG-rated tale.

Once the cute baby T. rexes hatch from the eggs adopted by Sid, they wreak havoc while roughhousing with their more placid Ice Age playmates, even swallowing a few before spitting them back out.

"They are like pit bull puppies," de Sève says. "I have a pit bull, Darla, and she inspired a lot of the characters. Sid's nose is straight from Darla."

How menacing can they get?

Then there's the maternal figure behind the sloth's foundlings. "We play the momma T. rex straight at first," Saldanha says. "She roars and stomps. But, at one point, she turns around with a quizzical look when Sid defies her. By the time she goes back into the underground world, she is much more of a character."

Her fierce presence was a challenge for de Sève, who then had to find a visage for the dino Rudy even more fearsome so a plot point with Buck the weasel (Simon Pegg) would ring true.

"We went with a baryonyx, which is also known as a spinosaur and has a crocodile look," the artist says of the huge carnivore. Rudy's veiny, red eyes enhance his menacing quality. Other more familiar dinosaurs that appear include troodon, iguanadon, pahycephalosaurus, sauropod, triceratops, pterodactyl and pterosaur.

The dinos emote and emit noises, thanks to recordings of trumpeting elephants, throat-clearing camels and squealing pigs. But they leave the talking to the old Ice Age gang.

"They are less evolved than the Ice Age characters," Saldanha explains, "and not having them speak keeps them more creaturey and mysterious."

The silent giants might provide a welcome distraction from a plot-point gag that mirrors one found in another animated summer blockbuster. When Manny and the gang enter an area with supposedly toxic gas, the green mist acts like helium and causes their voices to become higher. (Think Alvin and the Chipmunks, also a 20th Century Fox property.) In Pixar's summer hit, Up, a mean dog's speaking device goes haywire and raises his pitch to ridiculous Munchkin heights.

"It's unbelievable," Thurmeier says about the fluke. "We were mixing Ice Age at the Skywalker Ranch before Up came out. One of the sound mixers said they had worked on Up and there was a part with a voice change, too. I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me. What do we do?' Sometimes, it just happens."

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