In the vastly imaginative but narrowly successful world of animation, Pixar is the dragon everyone is trying to slay. Their track record of wins, both at the box office and black tie affairs, is the yardstick by which every other effort is measured. Offerings from Dreamworks and even just Disney (without the help of their friends from Emeryville) are expected to fall short (Monsters vs. Aliens, Bolt), and when they reach similar heights (Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon), it’s considered an anomaly. Unfair though the comparison may be, it sticks. In a vacuum, The Croods is a very good animated movie. There are kinetic action sequences, a few laughs, and strong voice work. But the depth of Pixar’s canon echoes around the cave walls of this primitive family, leaving the film feeling slightly emptier by contrast.
When you get down to it, The Croods is a fairly straightforward tale about family. There’s Grug (Nicolas Cage), the overprotective father, and his rebellious daughter, Eep (Emma Stone), each trying to make the world in their own view, one cautious and the other curious. There’s the token sassy mother-in-law, the weary but loving mother and the rest of the family that’s imagined mostly in two dimensions, despite the 3D rendering. There’s even the strange outsider and a road trip narrative that lends itself to some familiar laughs. The joke that we’re supposed to be in on is that these aren’t clichés if they’re happening for the first time, chronologically. But that doesn’t mean they don’t feel tired to any member of the audience old enough to drive. Grug is scared of everything new and governs his brood with this philosophy. “Never not be scared,” he instructs, and it’s almost as if the writers took his advice.
Things kick up a notch or two, though, when a nomad named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) arrives, full of ideas—the biggest of which is that the world is ending and the family that was sequestered in a cave needs to get out and get moving, or end up as fossils. It is through his eyes that The Croods really comes to life. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins consulted on some of the visuals, and it shows in scenes involving Eep’s discovery of fire and the enormity of the universe, as seen for the first time from the top of a forest. This is where the 3D really shines—not in gimmicky sequences with things flying out of the screen, but by adding a depth to the field of vision that is immersive and subtle. There is a fascinating underlying question here—what must it have been like to be the first to experience the wonders of the world? It isn’t asked often, but when it is, the results are poignant and beautiful.
Guy is slightly more advanced on the evolutionary scale, and he leads the mostly reluctant neanderthals on a journey where innovation becomes a necessity for survival. The animators echo his sense of adventure—he invents shoes and belts; they create creatures that wouldn’t look out of place in something imagined by Guillermo Del Toro. There’s true joy in seeing both the world that has been fashioned and the way these neophytes react to it. It’s not quite The Incredibles, but this “first family” has plenty of simple charm to spare. The sabertooth tiger’s share of that credit belongs to the duo of Stone and Cage—her plucky, raspy Eep is a joy to hear and see, and the reticent, ineffective Grug is some of the best work Cage has done in years. It doesn’t add up to much more than easily digestible family fare, but this is a caveman’s approach to animation—minimal sophistication with physical aspects that can be breathtaking. Just don’t try to compare it to anything more evolved.
Directors: Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders
Writers: Chris Sanders, Kirk De Micco
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds
Release Date: Mar. 22, 2013