Guest Movie Review: The Croods
This weekend I watched an animated movie about cavemen, featuring the voices of Nicolas Cage and Ryan Reynolds, and produced by DreamWorks Animation Studios. And if any of that sounded good to you, I have this to say: congratulations on waking up from your five-year coma. Now if you don’t mind, we have some items to discuss.
All of the above items were extremely popular at one point, just not in 2013. We’ve long held a fascination for Neanderthals (indeed, in our species’ infancy, we fascinated them right off the face of the Earth), both historically and in pop culture. But while that fascination reached culmination in the form of likable mascots and a catchy slogan for a major insurance company, the short-lived TV spinoff killed interest just as quickly as it had risen. Nicolas Cage was once one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors, but his career is now officially in freefall; even when his films actually make it to the theaters, people don’t show up to see them. Reynolds meanwhile can’t seem to catch a break; every time he puts out a potentially career-changing film (The Proposal, Buried), the forward momentum is halted by massive bombs (Green Lantern, anyone?) and mediocre script choices. Finally, DreamWorks was the place to be when computer animation was just getting started, winning the first-ever Academy Award for Animated Feature (Shrek), but have since become a perennially second-place company to the perennially-renowned Pixar. The company often focuses more on releasing quick and dirty animated movies, often milking their more successful productions for their entire worth while still coming in second to Pixar’s more unique, original theatrical experiences. Combine that with the quick rise of other animation studios in recent years and DreamWorks relative bust with last year’s Rise of the Guardians, and this is a studio that may need to make some changes if it wants to keep entertaining audiences.
Enter The Croods, a title that has been in production since 2005, when it was going to be a stop-motion picture from British studio Aardman Animations. Despite a litany of delays, DreamWorks’ latest family outing has two things going for it: Co-Director Chris Sanders, whose highly-acclaimed projects include Lilo and Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon, and an all-star cast that includes not only Cage and Reynolds but Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke and Cloris Leachman. The Croods focuses on a Neanderthal family who have outlived the others in the area by following the protective Grug (Cage)’s one rule: “Never not be afraid.” The harsh environment and brutal wildlife produce no end of dangers for them, and in between the occasion tussles for food, they often spend days at a time cooped up in a boring – but safe – cave. That changes when the Croods meet Guy (Reynolds), a nomad who brings word of what he calls “The End” of the world. He searches for a new future far different from the bleak, barely livable conditions the Neanderthals are currently in. Though they are fearful of all new things, the Croods soon find themselves forced to follow Guy, and risk the world outside the relative safety of their cave.
The many characters manage to get nice boosts from excellent performances from their actors. Still, the movie relies heavily on three leads whose narratives deviate somewhat from more typical one-or-two pronged methods of storytelling. Reynolds is a consistent presence, playing up the straight-man aspect as a (relatively) modern man who finds himself surrounded by brutal savages. It’s the same role he’s played for years, that of a normal guy in outstanding circumstances. Stone’s Eep is more typical of your average Disney Princesses in that her fondest desires are – in order – to get out of the cave, to explore new things, and to become Guy’s cave-lady. Despite the danger of the character’s initial simplicity, Stone infuses the part with some true sense of identity. And while I would have loved a ton more fleshing out of the person who was ostensibly the lead character, it simply wasn’t to be. Cage, meanwhile, sneaks up on you with a performance that both plays to his typically atypical acting style and allows him to emote in a way he hasn’t done in years. Perhaps it’s because he’s been a human cartoon for as long as I can remember, but Cage is easily the best part of The Croods, whether it’s causing the little ones to laugh out loud in the film’s funnier moments or giving an emotional speech in the darker times. His take on a father protecting his family is one both simple and strongly sympathetic, and leads his fellow castmates with ease.
Sanders and co-director Kirk DeMicco (Space Chimps) also work wonders with both their story (which they also wrote with some input from British comedian John Cleese) and their animation department. The visuals are especially impressive, feeling far more polished than previous DreamWorks pictures. Textures are smoother, colors are more vibrant, and the characters are more expressive than we’ve ever seen from this studio. The art team also did a wonderful job interpreting the ancient world with fictional and arresting animal creatures, from flying tortoises to rat/elephant hybrids to whatever that giant green saber-toothed cat is. The world itself is full of wondrous, fundamentally different environments that feel as alive as the creatures in them, creating natural obstacles for the family to overcome.
But it’s those obstacles where The Croods slips from its lofty perch and into relatively pedestrian territory. Frankly, while much of the character interaction is well-done and the story is a nice balance between DreamWorks’ more typical child-friendly humor and, refreshingly, the more mature and heartfelt odes that it presents (especially in the tear-jerking final act), we’ve seen it all before. As well-produced as it is, we as an audience can see how easily many of the story’s themes were co-opted from every modern family comedy and road trip tale that has been on TV or the big screen. From family pets to over-protective parents to domestic squabbles, the only relatively new thing we get to see are Cavemen performing the exact same thing, which really isn’t all that great (or all that new). Sanders and DeMicco do make up for this with their ability to manipulate emotions, but this lack of imagination keeps The Croods from ascending to Mount Olympus.
Still, in a year that has been so far been sadly bereft of excellence at the cinema, The Croods all but automatically becomes the year’s #1 movie to date. It’s a humorous romp and an emotional rollercoaster that reaches for the heavens and has a conclusion that will make you unabashedly cheer. While it may not quite reach the lofty heights of How to Train Your Dragon (to which all DreamWorks productions ought to aspire), this is still a quality family film that shouldn’t be overlooked due to its seemingly anachronistic origins. What was once good can be good again, and while I will hopefully never see another caveman-themed television show ever again, it is nice to see them in a superior film that looks to be an early favorite come next year’s award shows.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. He reviewed 129 films in 2012, and is looking to break that record this time around. His other reviews can be found at Hello, Mr. Anderson.