DIRECTED BY: Chris Sanders & Kirk DeMicco
WRITTEN BY: Chris Sanders & Kirk DeMicco
STARRING: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman.
I’ve really been rooting for DreamWorks Animation lately. They've really been upping the game with some fairly solid films. For a while their features were somewhat…hit and miss to put it lightly. I wouldn't exactly call Bee Movie the pinnacle of entertainment. Since Kung-Fu Panda, though, they’ve really been putting a lot of effort towards solidifying a more "mature" image. It helps that they’ve brought on some consulting power from major Hollywood talents like Guillermo Del Toro.
With that said, though, The Croods falls somewhat on the low end of their recent output.
The story revolves around the titular family of cavemen who, after their home is destroyed in a sudden earthquake, are forced to follow the sun across the wilderness in search of paradise. This mystical land of “tomorrow” is said to be a place with no suffering, where one can be safe from the terrors of their prehistoric world.
Basically, it's the Land Before Time with cavemen. In other words, not particularly original.
The emotional center of the film is the relationship between the Crood’s domineering patriarch, Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage) and his teenage daughter Eap (Emma Stone). Like many animated heroines, she yearns for something “more” beyond the doldrums of the everyday. Her rebellious nature clashes with her father’s attitude of run and hide first, ask questions later. Even the very idea of something "new" sends the rest of the family into a paranoid frenzy. The tension between them is quickly comes to a head when their mysterious guide, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), becomes the object of Eap’s ever persistent hormonal affections.
From there, the story pretty much follows the standard beats of modern children’s animated films. It fills out its hour and a half running time largely with an abundance of visual gags and running jokes, most of them falling pretty flat after the first chuckle. It also has this problem where it feels like the story is more about a central message than the actual narrative. I mean, it’s not a bad message; actually, it’s an incredibly relevant one. It really drives the point home that it’s not necessarily the strongest that survives, but the one most adaptive to change. I might have said the story drags a little, but the film is short enough that I never really felt bored watching it.
I really appreciate that the film avoids the standard “liar revealed” arc. I kept bracing and bracing myself for it to come, but much to my surprise it never came. While this twist keeps Guy from traversing a stale, overused character arc, it also unfortunately robs him of any character arc. He starts off as a pretty cool guy (heh) and pretty much stays that way throughout the rest of film. I guess this kind of allows the story to focus on the Croods more, but their arcs are pretty bare bones as well. Arguably, Grug is the only character out of the cast who has any arc. He’s sort of a play on the “idiot dad” archetype, but instead of being relegated to comic relief, he’s put front and center. Cage lends to the character a solid voice performance. I does…sound like Nicolas Cage, if you catch my meaning, but that just makes the character sound more unique. On that note, most of the voice cast turns in very solid performances, even if there really isn’t much in the way of a “standout” amongst them.
Probably this film’s greatest strength, though, is its stunningly unique visual design. Every single frame of this movie is saturated with beautifully vibrant colors and wondrous paleolithic vistas. The studio employed cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption) as its visual consultant, and boy does it show!
The character designs reflect those of Sanders’ previous films (Lilo & Stitch, How to Train your Dragon). The ferocious Crood toddler, Sandy (Randy Thom) reminds me a lot of Stitch in terms of her mannerisms and behavior. In fact, all the Croods have a very interesting hybrid animalistic/human way of moving, which makes a lot of the action scenes incredibly fun to watch.
So, if you’re looking for something in these long dry months until the May releases start rolling around, you could do a lot worse than The Croods. It’s got enough visual spark to justify some of its clunkier narrative foibles.
RATING - * * ½ (out of four)
Fun Fact: The story was originally developed and written by John Cleese of Monty Python fame (though a lot of his material was thrown out when Sanders took over). I can only imagine what an animated movie written by John Cleese would be like…