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Entries in Croods/The [2013] (1)

Tuesday
Dec172013

The Croods (2013)

Can't Start a Fire without a Spark

For much of The Croods, Grug (Nicolas Cage) repeats his trusty mantra, "New is always bad!" As the patriarch of a bickering, prehistoric clan, he forbids his family from eating anything strange, or leaving their cave after dark--a philosophy that's kept them safe from all manner of prehistoric horrors. The downside is they live a bland, middle-of-the-road life, which upsets his curious teenage daughter, Eep (Emma Stone). Sadly, Dreamworks sided with Grug when conceiving this animated adventure, draping cutting-edge technology over tired plot points and older-than-dirt jokes.

In fairness, I love the last thirty minutes of this hour-and-a-half movie. But much of it is like a video game version of The Flintsones, crossed with Vacation: instead of Wally World, the family's destination lay somewhere in a cartoon version of James Cameron's Pandora. Director Chris Sanders and co-writer Kirk De Micco (who collaborated with John Cleese on the story) present the Croods as lumbering, weirdly proportioned acrobats, who can somehow zoom across treacherous landscapes and perform twisty-turny feats in pursuit of a high score--sorry, I mean "food".

Grug is the brash but lovable father who brims with misplaced confidence; Eep and Thunk (Clark Duke) are the teens who alternately get up to no good and mistakenly worship at the alter of dad; Gran (Cloris Leachman) is the cranky, opinionated mother-in-law; and Grug's wife, Ugga (Catherine Keener), says supportive things and holds the baby--whose name is "Sandy", but might as well be "Bamm-Bamm".

Forced from their cave by shifting tectonic plates, the Croods must navigate exotic landscapes and deadly creatures they'd never dreamt of. They drag along a reluctant tour guide named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and his pet sloth, Belt (Sanders), who help them get to safety atop a distant mountain. Guy is an upbeat visionary who encourages the Croods to follow the sun to a brighter tomorrow, and to not be afraid of the little sparks popping off in their brains (also known as "ideas"). Grug, of course, is not thrilled by a ripped teenaged boy usurping his authority and eye-balling his daughter.

The most interesting thing about the movie is that Sanders also co-wrote and directed the superb How to Train Your Dragon. After nearly a decade of wallowing in Shrek's swamp of pop-culture references, anachronistic dialogue, and stories that barely acted as window dressing for weakly strung together gags, Dreamworks finally appeared to have grown up--putting out a movie that adults could not just enjoy while babysitting, but also appreciate as a film they might want to see again on their own. The Croods zaps us right back to the stone age, with derivative characters doing nonsensical things, while speaking in a way that any audience member with a partially engaged brain will likely find frustrating (Grug knew how to tell time before he learned about fire?).

I know, I know. It's a cartoon, and you can't apply grumpy ol' adult logic to a cartoon--except when you can, which is always. Look, The Croods is not a compilation of celebrity appearances on Sesame Street. It's a multi-million-dollar, brand-name studio animation that's in direct competition with Pixar. As such, it demands to be measured against its peers in factors other than box office (shockingly, or maybe not so shockingly, this movie was a smash). Unlike How to Train Your Dragon, or any of the films in Pixar's canon, I doubt I'll remember anything about The Croods a week from now--except maybe that this is Reynolds' second voice-job for Dreamworks this year (the first being the significantly smarter and more entertaining Turbo).

The film's saving grace is its final act, which actually involves forward story momentum and character development. The family gets fed up with Grug's stubbornness and sides with Guy for the remainder of the journey. He accepts this responsibility reluctantly: he really likes Grug and thinks he's a good dad, but understands that his lack of brains will soon get everyone killed. The two get separated from the pack and wind up bonding over a rather terrifying dip in some tar pits. From here, The Croods tackles sometimes contradictory themes of self-sacrifice, humility, and the desire to live--all with sufficient weight, humor, and imagination. I got downright misty-eyed when Grug said good-bye to Eep, even knowing full well that Dreamworks wouldn't allow one of their prime product icons to bite the dust until at least the fourth sequel.

I'll watch The Croods again someday, just to see if the first two-thirds annoy me less now that I know the endeavour isn't a wash. Who knows? I might be even more irritated by the unfunny, circular shenanigans than when I thought that was all the movie had to offer. Regardless, it's a shame Dreamworks didn't demand more of the film's creative team than a project best described as a cut-and-paste kids' movie that sometimes throws a bone to the over-five set. If movies like Up, Monsters University, and Wall-E attended a block party, The Croods, I'm sure The Croods would be found tugging at their legs, giggling 'cause it just got some pee on the sidewalk.