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Superstar who is nuts about nuts

He will never be in the running for the sexiest man alive. He has an ongoing addiction problem that he refuses to treat. Yet when it comes to box-office clout, worldwide fame and adoration from fans, few members of Hollywood’s A-list can claim to be in the same league as Scrat.

The twitchy squirrel-rat with the fangy overbite is up to his old scratch-and-sniff tricks again as he rejoins the rest of the prehistoric gang in Ice Age: Continental Drift, the fourth entry in 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios’s popular animated series. It opens Friday.

This time, the brotherly trio of mammalian heroes — Manny the morose mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano), Sid the lisping sloth (John Leguizamo) and Diego the testy saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) — engage in derring-do against a motley menagerie of buccaneers while coping with family issues and matters of the heart.

Not that Scrat pays much mind to that sort of gooey-hooey. He is too busy doing what he does best, skittering along the fringes of the central story and stealing the show. As usual, life-imperiling slapstick ensues in the great outdoors as the manic critter chases after his acorn, his ever-elusive object of desire, and inadvertently causes an earth-shattering geographic event.

A SUPERSTAR WHO DOES HIS OWN STUNTS

The mangy rodent’s efforts are already paying off overseas, where Continental Drift has taken in more than $200 million in slightly more than two weeks. Vanessa Morrison, president of Fox Animation, knows full well the worth of the studio’s unofficial bushy-tailed mascot: “Ice Age, at close to $2.5 billion worldwide and counting, is the most successful international animation franchise in history — and Scrat is a big part of its enduring appeal. He demands a lot of nuts, but he is a superstar, and he does his own stunts.”

Not bad for a character who was essentially an afterthought when he made his debut in 2002’s Ice Age. Back then, computer-animated features were in their adolescence, with Pixar pretty much monopolising the marketplace after 1995’s groundbreaking Toy Story. That is, until 2001, when DreamWorks introduced the world to a foul-tempered ogre named Shrek.

Fox decided to join the fray by buying the ready-made animation house Blue Sky and choosing Ice Age, with its primordial herd, as its first full-length computer-generated effort. But the studio needed a hook to make a statement and distinguish its style from the rest. That is where Scrat crawls in.

“We wanted to open the movie with a sequence that would personify the ice age itself,” recalls Chris Wedge, co-founder of Blue Sky, director of the first film and an executive producer on Continental Drift. “We decided a glacier would chase somebody. We thought, ‘Why not the smallest character?’ It would be a hapless animal squashed by a mammoth’s foot, and that would be the end of him.”

Among the many drawings based on fossilised wildlife sketched by character designer and New Yorker cover artist Peter de Seve was one of a tiny saber-toothed rodent. “The last thing I thought of was, ‘Now I get to work on this really important character.’ He wasn’t. He was peripheral, in the background. Of course, one thing I’ve learned is there is no such thing as a background character.”

Indeed, with the addition of comical sniffles, scratches, shrieks and moans provided by Wedge himself on what was supposed to be only a temporary track, the bug-eyed Scrat soon scuttled into the foreground once it was decided to use his opening segment as an early trailer.

“I remember watching that sequence for the first time and thinking, ‘Man, that is really good. That is something we have never seen before,’” says Mike Thurmeier, who has worked on all four films. “I give most of the credit to Chris. He doesn’t have traditional tastes. He is never going to make a Disney movie. He has no desire to follow a formula.”

THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM IS A NUT!

Once paying audiences caught sight of the lovable nut case when the teaser aptly premiered with 2001’s Jurassic Park III and word of mouth took off, it was clear that Scrat — who was never in the original script — would have to be woven into the edges of the rest of the film. And a cartoon icon, the antithesis of that nice and polite white-gloved fellow rodent Mickey Mouse, was born.

Most agree that Scrat’s most important asset is his silence. “He is a pantomime character,” says animation historian Leonard Maltin. “There is a unique impact when a character doesn’t have dialogue but is still so expressive and so easily understood.”

As a result, the Ice Age movies are able to entertain even the youngest moviegoers and do especially well internationally. As Wedge says, “I might be the only voice that translates into every language.”

Others have compared Scrat to such greats of the silent era as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, especially given his penchant for visual slapstick. Little wonder that someone in the marketing department was inspired to put together a black-and-white spoof of last year’s Oscar champ The Artist, titled The Scratist (youtube.com/watch?v=AmkgXuDnhmA).

Castmates have mostly made peace with the fact that this wee menace, whose antics are now traditionally showcased in the first trailer for each new Ice Age, often overshadows their own contributions.While his silly Sid provides a chatty contrast to the reticent Scrat, Leguizamo understands why the toothy nuisance has such an avid following. “Everybody is after their nut,” he says. “It represents the American dream. Always wanting more and not enjoying what you’ve got. Just like Scrat, we may have one, but we want five more.”

True, Scrat’s obsession might be categoriSed as code red, given how willing he is to risk bodily harm in harsh environments just to hold on to his acorn. As Leguizamo says, “He definitely needs to go to some meetings.”

But the comic release the creature reliably provides each time he loses his grip just might keep the rest of the world a little saner. Despite his surly persona on screen, Leary is actually fond of the little fellow. “I applaud the guy for sticking with it,” he says while praising Scrat’s loyalty to the franchise. “He could have his own TV show or spin off into his own series of movies. He is one of the funniest things in the films every single time. I am happy to give him the spotlight.”

Part of the secret of Scrat’s success is how he is able to hold the tabloids at bay and keep his private life to himself. The better to maintain his special mystique. Besides, as in the tradition of Brando and other great Method artists, he prefers to channel his personal pain into his craft. That includes the tempestuous love-hate relationship he shares with his female counterpart, Scratte, in 2009’s Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (she also briefly appears in Continental Drift), one that could rival Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton for celebrity-couple fireworks.

But nothing, not even a foxy lady with wily ways, will ever truly come between Scrat and his acorn. “The one rule that will never be broken in my lifetime is that he can’t get the acorn,” Wedge insists. “Otherwise, we won't have a story.”

Though Fox and Blue Sky could easily exploit Scrat’s lofty position as the ambassador to a highly profitable franchise, they seem to know better than to over-expose such a priceless asset. True, there are the usual stuffed toys available, and he was the first character unveiled to promote a spinoff arena show, Ice Age Live! A Mammoth Adventure, an extravaganza combining Cirque-du-Soleil-style acrobatics, skating stunts, kung fu and video that premieres in London this fall. But ultimately, Scrat would always prefer to be fruitlessly scouring the terrain for his precious nut than foraging for any more fame.

In other words: Don’t expect him to sell out and show up as a reality-show judge on a certain Fox TV singing-contest show.