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The Croods is recommendable family fare, although there isn’t much it has to offer that a thousand other animated films haven’t offered already. Its thematic subtexts – growth, individuality, opening your mind and heart, learning to let go of fear – are good to hear but are also rather generic and predictable, so much so that I fear they might soon lose the power they once had to positively influence children. The good news is that said themes are applied to a story that involves a family of cavemen, prehistoric animals that never actually existed, and instantaneous continental drift (perhaps the latter is a nod to the Ice Age films, continental drift factoring heavily in the misadventures of Scrat and his acorn). And overall, the film is fun, heartwarming, and a pleasure to look at, even in 3D.
The Crood family consists of a husband, a wife, a mother-in-law, and three children. All are somewhere in that evolutionary phase between Neanderthals and modern humans; they walk upright and yet they also run on all fours, they can easily climb trees and scale cliffs, their proportions are just bulky enough to be subhuman but not so bulky that they’re practically apes, and, in much the same way as gerbils or mice, they sleep in one big huddle on the ground. All have their more animalistic moments, but the infant daughter is essentially feral, growling and biting at her prey with the same reckless abandon as a coyote cub. Perhaps this is the caveman equivalent of the coos, gurgles, and giggles exhibited by modern-day infants before learning how to form words.
The story is told from the perspective of the oldest child, a daughter named Eep (voiced by Emma Stone), a curious soul who longs for adventure. Unfortunately, she’s at the mercy of her worrisome father, Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage), who’s so overprotective that he instills within his family a fear of the unknown, mostly through stories and cave paintings. When the sun goes down, for example, everyone must return to their cave and seal off the entrance, for there are predators that lurk only at night. They must also not travel far beyond their cave. One night, Eeg directly disobeys her father’s nighttime curfew when she sees something outside the family cave, namely a glimmer of light that looks like a piece of the sun. When she goes to investigate, she discovers something a flaming torch. She has never seen fire before. She has never even heard of it.
She also meets the owner of the torch, a boy named, I kid you not, Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds). Up until then, Eep believed she and her family were the only people in the world. Guy, a nomad with a living sloth for a belt, claims that the world is coming to an end and that he’s on a mission to find tomorrow. Indeed, the earth has begun shaking, and great fissures turn flatlands into canyons. It isn’t long Eep’s family catches up with her, after which a great quake destroys their cave. Their only hope is to journey to a distant twin-peaked mountain. It will be perilous, to say the least; they will encounter carnivorous birds, gigantic man-eating flowers, brightly-plumaged birds the size of dinosaurs, and what appear to be land whales. Guy is initially kept hostage by Grug, who carries him inside a hollow log.
What becomes apparent is that there’s a vast difference between Grug and Guy’s survival instincts. Though strong, Grug lacks the mental capacity to think up any good ideas for getting his family to safety. Guy, though not as physically commanding (in fact, he looks the most human-looking of any other character), has a more evolved brain, and therefore can rationalize his way through most situations. He has learned discovered, for instance, that one must cover their feet when stepping through a field of rocky spikes. He introduces the Croods to shoes; Eep, in a wonderful display of stereotyping, goes gaga over the pair she has been given. Eep obviously has a crush on Guy, but Grug is jealous, for he’s coming to the realization that his instinct to live in fear has made him obsolete.
There are a great many physical gags in this film, some of which seem to have been lifted straight from the Looney Tunes archives. Consider a montage of Grug trying to show that he too is capable of making useful contraptions. Let’s just say that a springboard made from a flat rock and a boulder allow for some very Wile E. Coyote moments. One of my favorite shots is a distant view of a cliff, where we see some large creature, maybe something along the lines of a mastodon, walking; the ground suddenly gives way, and we watch as the mastodon plummets into a pit. And then there are instances of more adult humor, most notably a running gag in which Grug secretly hopes that each mishap has resulted in the death of his mother-in-law, Gran (voiced by Cloris Leachman). The Croods may not give audiences anything new, but little moments like these do make it worth seeing. One time should be enough, though.