"Big words make me angry... keep talking!"
Dreamworks Animation's seven year partnership with Paramount ended last year, and 20th Century Fox has taken over as the distributor for their animated films for the foreseeable future. It's interesting that The Croods is the first film released as part of this new partnership since, on the surface, it bears many striking resemblances to Fox's own animation franchise, The Ice Age series. If there's an obvious joke in here about Neanderthals being Fox's strong suit, I'm going to go ahead and dodge it, but this is a film far more in line with the lackluster Ice Age series than the strong work Dreamworks has been churning out of late.
The film opens, much as the also 3D Kung Fu Panda 2 did, with a 2D animation sequence. This one is narrated by Eep (Emma Stone) and done as a series of cave paintings that give us the backstory on her family, the eponymous Croods. The dad, Gurg (Nicolas Cage) is overly protective of his family, since all manner of disasters have befallen the other clans in their neighborhood, and he has a system to keep his family safe. His system essentially consists of locking his family away in a cave and repeating his catchphrase "never not be afraid" ad nauseum.
Eep, as the story requires her to, wants more out of life though, and her curiosity one night causes her to cross paths with Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a slightly more advanced human who is traveling to the sun, so that he can ride it to "tomorrow." I swear I'm not making this up. In context, it sort of makes sense, since these primitive humans would have an equally primitive understanding of the universe, but it's still a bit of a stretch.
An earthquake destroys The Croods' cave, and they set off in search of a new home. Their paths cross with Guy's again, and he is taken hostage by Gurg since he knows how to make fire, and could come in handy. The rest of the film plays out as a typical road adventure, as the insanely protective father must come to terms with his family's desire to grow and learn more about the world around them.
First things first, the film looks gorgeous. It's beautifully animated, and many of the 3D effects are great, in particular the flying debris, dust particles or fire embers had the many children at my screening reaching out to grab them. The animators have taken great care to lovingly animate the film, and it's pure eye candy. A lot of the action sequences are exciting and great to look at as well, particularly the family's first trip outdoors to secure breakfast.
The film is also jam packed with humor, not all of which works, but most of which is aimed squarely at the young people in the audience. Unlike the best Dreamworks & Pixar films, this one is not entirely interested in entertaining the adults in the audience. The humor is mostly for the kids, and my six and three year-olds are it up, particularly the antics of Guy's sidekick Belt. I did find it odd how lowest-common denominator most of the humor was, considering one of the co-writers/co-directors is Chris Sanders, who did the wonderfully subversive Lilo & Stitch.
The film has a ton of problems however, not least of which is the mixed-tone of the film. It's squarely set in a fantasy world, at least as far as the wildlife in the film is concerned. There's a ton of Flinstones-esque stone age parallels to modern day devices like photographs, umbrellas & shoes, and it makes the whole film feel much more lightweight than it would have been had it dodged these sort of cheap jokes altogether. At times it seems like the film is trying desperately to let you know that it's got a lot of brains & heart, but these moments all seem forced and more contrived than if they weren't surrounded by so much nonsense.
The film's climax, in particular, is preposterous & ham-fisted. There's a genuinely touching moment with Gurg coming to terms with his over-parenting, but it's followed by a ten minute sequence that feels significantly reduced in order to wrap things up in a timely fashion. The film spends over an hour with The Croods wandering around, essentially doing nothing, and then forces virtually all of its characters to have a change of heart within the same ten minute sequence. And to top it off, it's followed by the most absurd climactic sequence this side of The Matrix Revolutions.
The voice cast does admirably solid work. Cage is one of my favorite actors, but he's unreasonably restrained here. The only glimpse we get of the bonkers Cage that we know and love is a late second act sequence where he dresses up like Guy and tries to unleash a series of dumb inventions on his family. Stone & Reynolds are both good in their by-the-numbers roles, and Cloris Leachman manages to score the most laughs as Gran. Clark Duke is also funny as the dim-witted son Thunk, and Catherine Keener is reliably good as Ugga, the mother.
One last thing I have to mention is the film's score by Alan Silvestri. It is awful. It's so overbearing and bombastic, you can't help but be overwhelmed by it for virtually the entire running time of the film. The mark of a great score is that you don't notice it, and you can't help but notice this score. It forces itself on you in an unpleasant way, and resembles Hans Zimmer at his worst.
If you want the real lowdown on The Croods, I would say this. If you have children, particularly under the age of ten, you should definitely take them to see it. If you're just a childless fan of Dreamworks animation or Nic Cage, however, I would subtract a full star from my final rating. Your kids will adore this movie, but you'll find yourself weighed down by its plot contrivances and hollow climax. In the "absurdly protective dad" genre, it's not as good as Finding Nemo, but it's also nowhere near as bad as last year's atrocious Hotel Transylvania, and it even fails to reach even the mediocre heights of Dreamworks' recent output like Madagascar 3. But make no mistake, your kids will love it, and at the end of the day, that's what these films are all about.
GO Rating: 3/5
[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]