In The Croods, our titular family of neanderthals tries to survive harsh prehistoric times by adhering to the stern mandates of family patriarch Grug (Nic Cage), who preaches the edict that one should ‘never not be afraid.’ Such “discipline” keeps the rest of the family in line – mom “Ugga” (Catherine Keener), son “Thunk” (Clark Duke), granny “Gran” (Cloris Leachman) and a ferocious baby – but it’s not enough to curtail Eep (Emma Stone), Grug’s curious and adventurous teenage daughter.
One night, while taking a forbidden trip out of the cave, Eep happens across “Guy” (Ryan Reynolds), a smaller but more evolved (read: intelligent) boy, who whispers warning about the imminent end of the world. When Armageddon announces its arrival soon after, The Crood family is forced into a mecca to salvation in the company of Guy, whose advanced ideas begin to threaten Grug’s security as a leader – while the growing attraction between Guy and Eep threaten’s Grug’s security as a father.
The latest CG animated feature from Dreamworks (How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek, Kung Fu Panda), The Croods is a film that takes viewers to a uniquely imagined and visualized world, while also providing a familiar (but still touching) family drama story that appeals to both the young and old age brackets (for varying reasons). The narrative execution isn’t the greatest (the film has a very circular and predictable episodic structure), but the experience of the journey is – for the most part- worth the slightly meandering path it takes towards its obvious destination.
Co-written and co-directed by Kirk De Micco (Space Chimps) and Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon), the film captures the type of universally-relatable themes that made Panda and Dragon such breakout successes. Here the issue is family, and the inevitable process of growth and evolution (figuratively speaking) that can often be the biggest challenge for family members on either side of the authority line. Whether you’re a parent dealing with a contentious child – or a child trying to escape the clutches of an overbearing parent, The Croods will offer you nice food for thought, as well as some heart-warming perspective on why the challenge of family is still the best one of all.
There is also a surprising amount of fresh humor and/or sentiment that is mined from the thoroughly-exhausted tradition of historical comedy (i.e., faux explanations for certain inventions or conventions – anachronistic verbal irony, etc.). From the lovable “Belt” character to riffs on puppetry, aviation, women’s footwear and much more, De Micco and Sanders find some smart ways to reflect our modern times and values through the lens of a bygone era.
Unfortunately, the attempt to keep the narrative fresh and surprising is less successful. Our characters’ journey is a point-to-point progression of one obstacle after another – with the same threads being tugged in each episodic encounter (Guy outwits Grug, Eep and Guy get closer, Grug feels more alienated and useless – repeat). Savvy viewers are going to be able to call each and every developmental beat before it actually plays out onscreen – and despite teasing a potentially bold and daring third act climax, the movie ultimately settles for a saccharine ending that – while uplifting an nice – feels like something of a cop-out. However, as stated, the journey is, for the most part, fun for the duration.
Visually, the film skews closer to, say, Madagascar than Shrek or Kung Fu Panda – and this can be definitively seen in the prehistoric landscapes and creatures that populate the film. From the topography to the Flora and Fauna, The Croods looks like a version of prehistoric times as imagined by Dr. Seuss. The colors pop and the uniqueness of the overall aesthetic makes each scene worthy of extensive eye-examination; the humanoid characters are adequate in their cartoony design, while details like their shaggy animal hide clothing are rendered impeccably.
As for the 3D: It is almost exclusively used in the depth-creating way that pulls the viewer into the intricately-designed world of the film. Certain sequences (fire and brimstone cataclysms, attacks by vicious animals, etc.) look pretty stunning when you are pulled in close to view them in three dimensions; those who enjoy this type of 3D will find it so smooth they may forget they’re wearing the glasses; if you’re the type who prefers “pop-out” 3D effects, this is not the film to pay premium price for.
The voice casting is pretty much spot-on, with Nic Cage leading the way as Grug. At first, hearing the iconic actor’s smooth tones coming out of a brutish caveman is disorienting, but as the film develops, we get to see the many trademark sides of Cage emerge and fill Grug with life – including a great segment that pays winking tribute to the “Crazy Nic Cage” phenomenon. Emma Stone is basically playing to type with her portrayal of “Eep” – but since that sassy/sweet/geeky personality has practically become the young starlet’s official brand, I doubt many people will complain.
Ryan Reynolds is surprisingly subdued as “Guy,” dropping his own trademark quirky timing and dry wisecracks for a more straight-faced approach, punctuated by measured moments of humor. Those who tend to worry that any Reynolds is too much Reynolds shouldn’t worry in this case. Cloris Leachman steals a few good moments for her character (as the veteran comedienne is wont to do), while Keener and Duke are pretty much relegated to background status (though they are perfectly adequate in their respective roles).
For parents: Even though the film deals with some heavy subject matter (you know… like death and extinction) – not to mention a climatic act which invokes some pretty high levels of emotional drama - it never spills over into being too disturbing for children of young age. The beasts of the prehistoric plains are all designed in such a way that even the most “vicious” ones would still sell as cute plush toys (coming to a store near you, no doubt) – while any potentially scary or gruesome sequences are handled with care, and even a light touch of humor to make it more palatable for the kiddies.
The Croods is yet another successful film for Dreamworks, managing to land somewhere between their best works (Panda, Dragon) and their lackluster efforts (the Panda sequel or those latter Shrek films). It’s fun for the kids, while also delivering a lot of material that older viewers can contemplate and respond to – and of course, it lays strong foundation for more adventures with the Crood family to come.
The Croods is now playing in theaters. It is 98 minutes long, and Rated PG for some scary action.