Cavemen and cavewomen get a bad rap; keeping in mind the inflation of education from then to now, they were smarter than we may give them credit for. Can we not give them intellectual kudos for discovering and harvesting fire or at least simply not dying until they harvest more ancestors? My friend Mack even plays a caveman for a certain insurance company and he’s definitely an intelligent human being (not just because he loves Soderbergh). With The Croods, we have a tale about cleverly working with the basics and making something reasonably successful from them; a simple mind does not necessarily mean a braindead animated family movie.
A tale of family vs. nature, The Croods is about the last family left following a prehistoric run of bad luck; dinosaurs, mosquitoes, etc. How did they survive? They constantly burrowed in a dark cave, learning the lesson to “never not be afraid,” as instructed by conservative leader of the pack Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage).
This traumatic experience causes the family to fear lack of sunlight, with the group retreating to their rock bunker whenever night falls. Filled with angst for adventure, adolescent daughter Eep (Emma Stone) sneaks out of the cave one night and runs into another human named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a human who has learned how to make fire, something none of the Croods have ever seen before. Push comes to shove comes to dangerous rock slide and the Croods must flee their cave to survive. In hopes of finding a new home at the top of a faraway mountain, the family travels across a diverse landscape in a road trip led by the all-knowing Guy, to the frustration of Grug, who is being replaced as male leader.
As an animated family, the Croods have a strong Simpsons-esque dynamic, referring to the show’s episodes that are specifically led by oldest daughter Lisa. Father Grug is full of pratfalls and lughead sincerity like Homer; brother Thunk (Clark Duke) is a Bart-like simpleminded young boy; mother Ugga (Catherine Keener) is simply a mediator for domestic issues like Marge and at the same time is in charge of caring for the unpredictable wordless creature that is her baby. The elder in the movie, Gran (Cloris Leachman), is the farthest from this Simpsons comparison, as she proves to be full of spirit in the face of senility (the opposite of Grandpa Abe Simpson, one would argue). Still, jokes are made about the inevitability of Gran’s demise, with Grug openly anticipating such an event á la Homer and his father.
With a total cast of only eight (including wordless baby Sandy), The Croods features a few inspired voice performances, which provide the distinction this animated needs for its characters.
On a scale of 5 being the film Deadfall and 1 being Nicolas Cage actually dead, Croods captures walking Internet meme Nicolas Cage at about a 2.5963746779 in terms of his trademark Cagemaster craziness. Like his vocal performance as Speckles in G-Force (the mole who was literally the mission’s mole), Cage maintains chunks of his alluring zaniness while helping bring this character to life as he screams and yells into a vocal booth microphone. Cage’s glowing moment in the entire film is one that feels like a solid tribute to his do-and-die acting ethic, in which his character Grug screams, “Gimme the acting sticks!” whilst making a puppet with Guy.
Her first appearance in a recording booth for an animated movie, Stone too provides the pep needed with her active character. She proves that her energy (which made her a star over the weekend with Easy A) is a solid fit for animation, especially with such a giddy character as hers. The same can surprisingly be said for Ryan Reynolds, who is worth a chuckle, maybe two, as a wannabe alpha male. His deep voice goes further than one might expect in terms of humor, especially when he is trying to take control of the Croods’ expedition.
With the film working off a vaguely documented aspect of world history, The Croods does takes solid advantage of its creative license, especially in regards to the creatures the family interacts with through shifting landscapes. Here, these now super dead animals are concocted to be as cute and colorful as possible, adorned with a rainbow fur palette and of course, bright wide eyes that would make any one of them extra smiley for a poster. Aside from the movie’s zippy humor, this is the type of creativity that keeps the film unpredictable as it moves along with a straightforward plot. A tiger with a fat head and a multicolor body has tusks, turtles fly, two mice are connected by a striped tail and more. The animals are charming enough (and if you’re not a super tough guy like me, adorable) that one can forget these creatures will all eventually be wiped off the planet once nature sets in, making way for the existence of boring animals like poodles.
For a film with a heavy message about embracing new ideas, The Croods certainly outs itself as hypocritical when it comes to its characters, sticking to safe areas. When will animated elders stop being so sassy or unintelligible babies so animal-like? Along with this, the film has characters used specifically for their cuteness, which take the expectations of creativity down a notch (such as Guy’s sloth Belt, used as a belt). The same can be said for the movie’s dialogue, which abandons early on any attempt to create these characters without contemporary references. Instead, a distinct amount of the humor is simply about the silliness in the anachronisms (“Looks like fast food tonight,” someone says after failed scavenging or like when Guy uses the word “conversationalist”). This factor doesn’t denigrate The Croods to complete junk, it’s certainly better than it may look; its just a strong example of how far this script is willing to go with its creativity and how far it isn’t.
That being said, while this movie might be building up from its simple setup and characters, it doesn’t sell itself out like previous animated flicks The Croods might only resemble. In terms of the humor, it seems imperative to mention that there are no fart jokes in this movie or even jokes relating to and/or about animal poop. Such content or lack of, seems to be a strong indicator these days as to when an animated “family” comedy wants to be tooth rotting crap for easily amused tykes (like Hotel Transylvania) or something with taste that strives to be more resonant for a larger audience of various levels of maturity. Both The Croods and Transylvania contain segments that zip-zoop-zip like classic, cartoon, madcap mayhem, but this film strives for more cleverness in its humor. Whether its jokes fully work or not, it functions like comedians riffing out loud on their setups. This explains the co-writing credit of comedic legend John Cleese (whose involvement isn’t yet recognized by IMDb).
Along with Cleese, the film features a few nudges of quality from credited “visual consultant” Roger Deakins, who was cinematographer most recently for Skyfall and has a brief history of consulting for other animated films like Rango and WALL-E. The 3D may not be a worthy investment, but The Croods is still full of rich imagery, its landscapes intricate and its editing sharp with good timing (some scene transitions make for the best jokes).
After a sluggish start, The Croods gets snappy with its playground attitude, in which it relies on impressive backdrops and creative characters to make for its jokes and moments of peril, all before moving onto the next level. The Croods essentially functions as a road trip comedy, its center “modern family” walking in one direction, making pit stops to get knocked around by various elements of nature and then moving on. At the same time, the film is simultaneously successful with the handling of its emotional conflict, in which Grug tries to maintain his daughter’s respect despite her interest in new male role model Guy.
Co-directed by filmmakers from How to Train Your Dragon and Space Chimps, The Croods is a welcome addition to the currently barren field of immediately family friendly movies (according to David Crow, last month’s Escape from Planet Earth is really for 12-year-olds). While imperfect with its comedy, this simple story of a family on a quest for fire proves to have a few sparks of its own.
Den of Geek Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars