The incredible visual quality of CGI-animated films these days has been hiding from no one. With a blank canvas, Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky Studios and others have been able to spark the imagination in ways live action films have yet to manage (outside of “Avatar”). “The Croods” is the latest DreamWorks offering to impose its visual might on the animated marketplace with a fantasy of prehistoric proportions.
Directed by Kirk De Micco and “How to Train Your Dragon” co-director Chris Sanders, “The Croods” might be DreamWorks’ finest visual feat, but only in terms of imagination. “How to Train Your Dragon” is a fantasy tale based in Scottish lore, whereas “The Croods” is a fantasy based in the minds of its artists.
In other words, “The Croods” makes up all its own rules. Despite our main characters being described as primitives with sloped foreheads, they possess superhuman physical abilities and fight for survival from genetic hybrid animal predators. When the separation of Pangea or whatever seismic event is behind the Croods’ discovering of a vibrant, lush and dangerous world beyond their cave, the filmmakers triple the amount of fantastical wildlife behind every corner.
Yet it’s all dressing, because “The Croods,” at heart, is no different than any animated film of the 21st Century. Our narrator is young Eep (voiced by Emma Stone), a vivacious and curious teen who longs to break away from the strict, safe rules of her father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), the strong figurehead who instills the value of fear in his family, which also includes the mother, Ugga (Catherine Keener), bumbling preteen boy, Thunk (Clark Duke), nutty grandmother (Cloris Leachman) and rabid animal-like baby daughter, Sandy.
Eep sneaks out of the cave one night to discover an outsider, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a modern human who knows how to create fire and has all other kinds of progressive ideas, such as shoes. When aforementioned earth-cracking occurs, Grug reluctantly recognizes him as their guide to this new world, and brings him along — inside a wooden log.
So while the characters defy physics and 90 percent of the animal species featured in the film never existed, the core store remains stuffed with familiar motifs from other recent animated adventures. At least they are time-tested and successful ones.
“The Croods” has a secret weapon, however, and that’s a brilliant sense of humor. There’s no proof, but I’d wager “Monty Python’s” own John Cleese having a writing credit has a lot to do with it. The humor of the film balances modern laughs, witty caveman-related jokes, and classic family back-and-forth to create a brand of humor that is both familiar yet will catch everyone by surprise at some point.
Plus, “The Croods” manages to be “so damn cute” in spite of how ridiculous it often is, much like Universal’s “Despicable Me” and “How to Train Your Dragon” as well, specifically as it relates to making big creatures so lovable-looking.
The plot doesn’t foray into new territory as you might be able to guess from the setup, but it does keep you guessing in terms of how the family will survive certain dangers. Okay, maybe not “keep you guessing,” but at least the solutions usually have a creative twist. Humor and creativity help maintain interest in the story and the characters, making them by far the film’s greatest assets.
“The Croods” provides significant evidence as to what storytelling elements comprise DreamWorks’ animated movie formula. Essentially, take the simplest of stories and translate it to whatever kind of fantastical landscape you desire, preferably one that has a distinct visual thumbprint. “The Croods” could be understood by a caveman (sorry), but its imagination and humor build it into something decidedly modern.
Directed by Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders
Written by John Cleese, Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders
Starring: (voices) Emma Stone, Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke