A funny thing happened at the end of the promotional screening for the newest 3-D "Ice Age" movie, "Ice Age: Continental Drift." We're talking funny strange and funny ha-ha, both.

Three minutes before movie's end, the theater's automated system cut off the movie's sound and substituted its own canned sound -- bad old hit songs, commercials, previews of upcoming movies and TV shows, etc.

So in the audience, we were confronted with the primal film situation. In other words, the equivalent of a silent movie. We had to follow the action onscreen while ignoring the sound, which had become completely irrelevant and downright annoying.

Talk about serendipity. I love the ending of the film, all of which I had to figure out from cinematic imagery alone. To all those frosty and sniffish movie historians who lambaste all movies in the sound era as being too talky, here was a movie ending we suddenly had to watch as PURE CINEMA.

I kind of loved it. It fully hit me how visually and narratively splendid the "Ice Age" movies could be. I didn't feel quite that way at the beginning.

In fact, if you're anything like me, you'll wonder a bit at the opening two minutes of "Ice Age: Continental Drift."

An awful lot of frenetic action -- including massive geological upheaval begun, as always, by our friend Skrat, the greedy squirrel and his (literally) earth-shaking attempts to find Acorn Valhalla -- is crammed into a short narrative space. Then, during a moment of respite for Manny the Mammoth and his family (Ray Romano as Manny, Queen Latifah as Ellie and Keke Palmer as daughter Peaches), they meet up all-too-coincidentally with their old lisping pal, Sid the Stinky Sloth (John Leguizamo).

It seems that Sid has been suddenly found by his family, just about the trashiest and most detestable creatures in this prehistoric world (Joy Behar -- delicious choice -- plays Mom). They're given to sudden disappearances at a moment's notice, thereby abandoning family members they've just greeted with open arms.

This time around they have Granny with them. Voiced by the wondrous Wanda Sykes, she isn't all that happy about anyone who might cast aspersions on her shortened life expectancy.

But true to their awful selves, Sid's family disappears just as suddenly as it appeared, leaving Sid -- and his buddies in their makeshift prehistoric family -- to take charge of Granny, whose dementia seems to characterize her best days.

As I see it, that's a lot of narrative frenzy and emotion to pile into a movie's opening.

And then all hell breaks loose geologically -- continents drifting apart can't help but make everyone a little nervous -- and this "Ice Age" turns into a fully constituted and respectably delightful episode in what has, so far, been an altogether rollicking series.

Let's remember that digital animation -- 3-D or not 3-D -- has made full-length animated films among the greatest entertainments of the movie age we're living in. Yes, they're a reliable thing to do with the kids at the mall on weekends, but they've become so much more in movies like "Wall-E," "Up" and "How to Train Your Dragon."

I wouldn't go so far as to say that I love all the "Ice Age" movies, but I'm awfully fond of them and have been from the first time I saw the cataclysms that could be caused by one frantic, paranoid squirrel just trying to hang onto one slippery acorn. It was a Chuck Jones/Tex Avery notion that had been pursued with positively cosmic narrative grandeur.

By the time pirates show up to be the chief antagonists (Peter Dinklage voices their leader, Jennifer Lopez is their resident tiger) of Manny and his ragtag gang of lovable misfits, they're practically a distraction from the greater problems of an earth that simply refuses to stay put in one place beneath your feet. It's wild to look at, funny and endearing, just as its audience hopes it will be.




WITH THE VOICES OF: Ray Romano, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Lopez, Wanda Sykes, Peter Dinklage, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary and Joy Behar

DIRECTORS: Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

RATING: PG for intense geological action and cruelty among prehistoric animals

THE LOWDOWN: Manny the Woolly Mammoth is separated from wife Ellie and daughter Peaches by terrestrial upheaval and has to fight pirates besides.