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ICE AGE -- CONTINENTAL DRIFT , USA , 2012 , MPAA Rating : PG for mild rude humor and action/peril

ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT is a sweet film that, like its predecessors in the franchise, delivers the same earnest message about friendship and family. Exactly the same message. If the lessons to be learned by the characters old and new, though, have a too familiar feel, and if some of the tropes are barely a re-hash of previous ones, there is the virtue here of some truly dynamic animation, voice work that is the gold standard for animated films, and an open-hearted sincerity.

The story picks up several years after the last film ended. Mammoths Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) are now the proud parents of a teenage daughter, Peaches (Keke Palmer). She is a spirited girl with a sense of adventure that worries the overprotective Manny far more than the ominous subterranean rumblings shaking up the landscape. Not that he shouldn’t be worried about both, as Peaches sneaks out with her best friend Louis (Josh Gad), to hand with the cool kids in an act of defiance that leads to the family being separated when the continents do what the flick’s title promises. While Ellie leads the diverse Pleistocene community to safety from the encroaching tectonic plate, Manny finds himself adrift at sea on a shrinking ice floe with pals Diego the cynical and sarcastic Sabretooth tiger (Dennis Leary) with a soft heart and an acid tongue, Sid the sweet but addled sloth (John Leguizamo), and Sid’s newly arrived, not sweet, and even more addled grandmother (Wanda Sykes).

While Peaches is learning a lesson about the difference between a hormone surge and friendship, Manny is dealing with a primordial, ice-berg sailing pirate, Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), a nefarious ape with a penchant for bursting into song and taking revenge. Manny inspires him to both while Diego may or may not be warming up to Shira (Jennifer Lopez), the pirate’s toothsome saber-toothed first mate. The latter story is the one that is more fun, to be sure, though there is no faulting the nurturing tones that Queen Latifah brings to her voice work, nor the genuine poignancy of how painful betrayal of a first crush can be.

There is more imagination at work in Manny’s story. Gutt’s pirate crew is a bizarre parallel of Manny’s cohorts, with a pudding-like seal and an unaccountably feisty rabbit, and the nefarious doings are a bracing match for the fanciful flourishes that include sirens and a herd of rodents that are cute, cuddly, and unexpectedly inventive.

As oceans roil, and continents collapse in interesting and dangerous ways, Manny and Ellie brave impossible odds to be reunited. Odds that include grandma’s tendency to wander away while tossing their food supplies to her imaginary pet, Precious. Manny and Ellie carry the emotional thread of the story, leaving the ancillary ones to provide the comic relief, particularly Syd, whose longing for acceptance is in eternal, and eternally stalemated, battle with his wistful stupidity. The funniest moments, though, are for the lesser characters to provide, the best of them being the returning possum brothers when they reveal the secret to their unbounded happiness. The answer is either immensely wise, or immensely silly, but either way, is topped off with a perfectly calibrated nose beep that rivals the perfection of the minor character, and mascot of the franchise, the scrappy but luckless every-rodent, Scrat.

He’s back, though not as prominent as in the last film, alas. Yet it is his adventures that start things off as his never-ending quest to retain possession of his precious acorn results in global crisis, and, in an exquisitely ironic twist of fate, confronts the pleasure principle with a reaction that is rife with the philosophical conundrums posed by great thinkers through the ages.

ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT moves quickly, is well directed, and from time to time achieves some real suspense. If it also shows how the franchise is wearing a little thin, it also shows why it has lasted this long.

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