Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review: "The Croods"

The storytelling in “The Croods” isn’t as sharp and emotionally engaging as the better recent animated flicks -- “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Rise of the Guardians.” But it’s such a visually imaginative landscape, one filled with sproingy action, that it turns out a good bet for families -- especially those with smaller children who will savor the heaping helping of cool creatures and goofy slapstick.

The set-up isn’t awfully original, the tale of a prehistoric family that must leave the safety of its cave and traditions in response to a radically shifting landscape. There’s an ape-like father, rebellious teen, cantankerous oldster, feral toddler and primordial pets as comic relief.

Basically, it’s a mashup of “The Flintstones” and “The Land Before Time.”

But despite its lack of innovative flair, it’s still a rousing good time and a never-ending feast for the eyes. I was especially impressed with all the different critters populating the film’s environment. There are walking land whales, a flock of killer dino-parrots, a giant rainbow kitty, an ancestor of Maurice Sendak’s wild things, and something that looks like a genetic splicing of a dog, a skunk and an alligator (it’s much cuter than it sounds).

It’s quite a computer-generated menagerie, and the animators’ imaginations are so dense they even put things in the corners and backgrounds that are neat to look at.

The Croods are hardcore homebodies. They spend days at a time scrunched together in their cave hiding from predators, coming out just long enough to round up some grub and skedaddle back to safety and darkness. Physically, they’re fearsomely strong and agile – they can bound and run fast enough to keep up with the beasts they hunt and those that hunt them.

Despite this, patriarch Grug (voice of Nicolas Cage) is one seriously conservative guy. He sees his role as clan leader/protector depending on never trying anything new: “Never not be afraid” is the family motto.
Mom Ugga (Catherine Keener) is a generic maternal-worrier type. Son Thunk (Clark Duke) is dad’s chubby, under-athletic protégé, Sandy (Randy Thom) is a pint-sized terror, and Gran (Cloris Leachman) is the resident complainer and Grug antagonist. Gran is literally a throwback, sporting a vaguely reptilian tail.

(One amusing running gag is that Grug is continually disappointed when Gran survives their various ordeals. “Still alive!” she crows, taunting her son-in-law.)

But Eep (Emma Stone), the oldest child, yearns to live in the sun and experience new things, leading to obvious conflict with Grug. That rift grows when they encounter Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a more advanced type who can make fire and invent things. He warns the Croods that continental drift will destroy their home, urging them to seek out high land.

Various adventures and hijinks ensue, with Guy and Grug vying for leadership of the little band, and Eep’s affections. “Ideas are for weaklings,” Grug insists, but his brute strength is no match for the intellect of Guy, who teaches them how to make shoes and use animals to their advantage, instead of just for munching on.

The Croods are drawn in bold exaggerated lines, with thick limbs and thicker torsos offset by incongruously itsy-bitsy hands and feet. The creatures are even more out of whack, such as Guy’s pet/advisor/accessory Belt, a little sloth-like creature with arms twice as long as his body and a tendency to vocalize their plight with a funny triad of beeps.

Writing/directing team Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco probably needed to give the screenplay a few more rewrites to punch up the storyline. The more serious “life lessons” parts tend to feel like tacked-on accouterments. And Eep, the narrator and ostensibly the main character, keeps getting shunted aside in favor of Grug during the second half.

But whatever you want to say about the conceptual crudity of “The Croods,” Sanders and De Micco certainly elicited solid voice performances out of their cast, and led their animation team to a place of wonderment and joy.

3 stars out of four

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