With such poor marketing and a premise so archaic, “The Croods” could only be terrible –– at best boring and incredibly cheesy. And enough critics would agree. After all, it’s about cavemen. What chance does a film like this have against so many more fascinating premises? Adding lowbrow to low hype, it stars Nicholas Cage.
But “The Croods” is anything but crude. The story might be “Ice Age” with humans (take a moment and discuss how DreamWorks ran that franchise into the ground), but it delivers enjoyable characters and a visual universe worthy of the entire family.
Don’t be fooled by the trailers, this isn’t just the story of a cavegirl, Eep (voiced by Emma Stone) trying to break away from her overbearing father, Grug (voiced by Cage). Sure, that’s part of it, but this is more Grug’s story than Eep’s. The Crood family faces continual hardships: carnivorous animals, harsh weather, stuffy caves and an ongoing shortage of food. But their routine keeps them alive –– a vast improvement on their now-deceased fellow humans. But Grug’s time-tested safety measures can’t prepare him for a literally changing world when an earthquake destroys their cave, beginning a massive redistribution of the planet’s land mass. How can this Neanderthal family enter a new world when they’ve always been told to live in fear of anything new?
Luckily, entrepreneurial caveboy, Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), has as much ingenuity as intelligence –– he apparently invented fire. Somehow he knows the mountains lead away from the dangers of the continental shift. And while the family leaves behind the safety of their home turf, Grug questions his ability to provide for his family or care for his daughter, who seems so taken by this newcomer.
By all accounts, a cavemen story sounds as appealing as, well, cars or space chimps. And yet this one pulls the upset. Hardly groundbreaking, “The Croods” manages to be an engaging, heartfelt family adventure that tackles valid issues faced by the modern-day father. How can the analog ever relate to the digital? The film’s climax even ventures down unexpected paths for a children’s film. Not necessarily dark, but refreshing in an often conventional film.
And unlike many of DreamWorks’ animated fare that falls flat (all those “Ice Age” and “Shrek” sequels), “The Croods” rediscovers a narrative formula that is just as time-tested as Grug’s survival strategies. This one has the potential to survive a few more ages. It’s been a while since the “Dream team” successfully executed humor (sure, Pixar can’t get out of its rut either), instead siding with more adventurous stories. “The Croods”, finally, evokes more than courtesy laughter. Animal characters like Guy’s sloth, Belt (voiced by co-director Chris Sanders, who also co-directed “How To Train Your Dragon” and “Lilo & Stitch”), the baby Crood (who functions rather like an animal), and the many felines continually fixated on Grug, are reminiscent of the many creatures that made “Tangled” so funny and quirky.
Digital animation might be the best way to enjoy Hollywood’s most phoned-in actor, Cage. Or perhaps, I’m overly optimistic, since voice acting is commonly considered an easy gig, how could he mess it up? The best lines, though, easily go to Stone, as Eep, and Cloris Leachman (the splendid Maw Maw from TV series, “Raising Hope”), as Gran, Grug’s mother-in-law who just won’t die, no matter how much he hopes.
“The Croods” won’t win any awards (or maybe it will, it’s light years better than “Brave”, and that won Best Animated Feature), but its watchability and re-watchability far exceeds that of many other films targeted at younger audiences. Perhaps the bland haze of early 2013 is finally lifting, and it only took this blast from the past — a primitive story — to get us out of it.
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