"I'm looking out for No. 1," says Surly, the antihero of "The Nut Job." He's part of a long tradition of cinematic outsiders, from William Holden in "Stalag 17" to Robert Mitchum in "Out of the Past." Surly is tough and extremely cynical -- especially for a purple squirrel.
"The Nut Job" is itself a strange animal, an animated kids' movie inspired by the film noirs of the 1940s and '50s. It's also set in that era, judging from the round-topped sedans, and the backdrop is Oakton, a New Yorkish city centered on Liberty Park. Surly (the voice of Will Arnett) is the park's outlier, who won't help the critters' socialist czar, Raccoon (Liam Neeson), gather collective stores for winter. Instead, Surly wants to knock over Maury's Nut Shop. Unfortunately, it's the headquarters of a bank-robbing ring led by fresh-from-the-slammer King (Stephen Lang).
"The Nut Job" could have been a squirrelly version of "Ocean's Eleven": It has a love interest, Andie (Katherine Heigl), and a chauvinist buffoon, Grayson (Brendan Fraser), but the similarities end there. As Surly's heist progresses, the mood darkens, with betrayals, sabotage, near-drownings and a bit of rough justice. "I'll never talk!" shrieks a traitorous varmint, squirming under the glare of a street lamp. The overall mood resembles a furry, nut-based version of Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing."
How did that happen? Perhaps director Peter Lepeniotis and his co-writer, Lorne Cameron ("Ratatouille"), modeled their movie so closely on classic Hollywood crime flicks that they accidentally made one. The logistics of the twin heists are highly detailed, the double-crosses complex and the characters awfully hard-boiled. Surly is so committed to his loner's creed that we half-expect him to clasp Andie in his arms and shoot her. The movie's climax, unexpectedly intense, includes a police barricade, a plummeting vehicle and even a moment of goodbye-to-all-that anguish.
Whenever the movie does remember its young audience, it aims low, inserting blasts of flatulence, feeble jokes ("You're nuts!") or cuing up the goony dance-track "Gangnam Style" by South Korean rapper Psy, whose native country provided financing. For all that, "The Nut Job" may be too tough for most kids to crack.
PLOT An outlaw squirrel knocks over a local nut store.
RATING PG (rude humor)
CAST Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl, Brendan Fraser
BOTTOM LINE An animated heist flick? Brilliant idea, but the off-key result is a kiddie noir with hard-bitten dialogue and blasts of flatulence.