It’s Easter break for schoolchildren, and that means that it’s time for Hollywood to serve up some good excuses to take kids wired on jellybeans and chocolate bunnies to the local megaplex. Both Jack the Giant Slayer and Oz the Great and Powerful are still in the cinemas, but both are disappointing efforts, so for a bit of family-friendly entertainment you could do worse this week than to head over to the latest release from DreamWorks Animation, The Croods. It doesn’t offer much in the way of sophisticated narrative, but the action is hyperkinetic enough to burn off a few hundred calories in Rapid Eye Movement alone, and the visual imagery is quite stunning – sort of a mashup of Finding Nemo, Road Runner cartoons and Avatar.
The Croods was written and directed by Kirk DeMicco, best-known for Quest for Camelot, and Chris Sanders, whose How to Train Your Dragon last year scored big enough with the kiddies to warrant a contract for two sequels. Surprisingly, John Cleese also gets a writing credit on The Croods, dating back to a much earlier incarnation – called Crood Awakening in the concept stage – that was supposed to have been produced by Aardman Animation instead of DreamWorks. That would have been a much different movie, in look as well as in tone; nothing detectable remains of a Pythonesque or Wallace-and-Gromitish British sense of humor, save for a total embrace of any level of absurdity.
If you’re an animation omnivore, you may find that The Croods reminds you more of the Ice Age franchise put out by rival Blue Sky Studios. Both are set in Paleolithic times (although in this case proto-humans are the protagonists, rather than the shadowy bad guys who wiped out Manny the Mammoth’s family), and both rely heavily on vocal characterizations by some fairly familiar comic actors in lieu of a compelling storyline. As in Ice Age: The Meltdown, the ever-bickering core crew is on a quest prompted by epic-scale natural catastrophe, and both go in for a bit of heartstring-tugging as the squabbling besties learn to appreciate one another, warts and all.
Here’s the plot of The Croods, such as it is: Eep (Emma Stone) is the headstrong, curious teenage daughter of the last surviving family of Neanderthals in their neck of the woods. (Picture Brave’s Princess Merida with straighter hair and an American accent.) Her father Grug (Nicolas Cage) is the epitome of a troglodyte, insisting that all family members stay in the cave all the time, except when they’re hunting for food, and telling stories whose moral is always that anything new or unfamiliar is bad and that curiosity inevitably will get you killed. There’s your basic narrative conflict.
Also in the Crood clan are Ugga (Catherine Keener), the nurturing Mom who tries to pacify all sides; Thunk (Clark Duke), the inept and accident-prone 9-year-old son; and a feral, preverbal toddler named Sandy who gives new meaning to the term “terrible twos.” Cloris Leachman seems to be having the most fun voicing Gran, Ugga’s cantankerous old mother. Crude they all are, indeed; much of the movie’s humor abides in the concept that these are no semi-civilized Flintstones living in the ür-suburbs, but rather semi-evolved hominids who will happily regress and chew on one another at a moment’s notice.
Predictably enough, rebellious Eep leaves the cave at night and meets a cute and forward-thinking Cro-Magnon boy named Guy, who shows her how to use fire for the first time. When Eep comes home, she gets grounded by her controlling Dad, but the family is quickly forced out of the cave by an earthquake predicted by Guy. Seismic disaster is always close behind as the family discovers one bizarre new color-saturated landscape after another, populated by even more bizarre fauna that never existed on the real Earth (but will likely support quite a lot of stuffed-toy merchandising). Grug’s brawn and Guy’s brain contend for alpha male status until a teary-eyed contretemps is finally reached.
No surprises here, and nothing to inspire much of a dialogue with the kids on the way home about tough ethical choices and the like. Look elsewhere for your teachable moments or your unforeseen plot twists. The Croods is a lightweight movie to enjoy as is, just for the wild ride that rarely pauses even for a minute and especially for the truly inventive and improbable creatures. If they don’t bring out the kid in you, I don’t know what will. The irresistibly catchy theme song, “Shine Your Way,” performed by Owl City and Yuna, should send you and the kids back out into the mall in a pretty good mood and primed for spring.