2012 was an up-and-down year for DreamWorks Animation, with the strong performance of Madagascar 3, but the commercial disappointment associated with Rise of the Guardians (although only in the über-competitive and expensive world of animation can a gross of $300 million not be a great thing), but 2013 seems to be off to a good start so far. The studio's first film of the year is out now and you know what? The Croods is good. Reviews have been tepidly enthusiastic and, certainly, The Croods isn't up there with How to Train Your Dragon or Kung Fu Panda 2, but it is still a very fun, very funny and suitably warm film - just another in DreamWorks' recent string of really good animated pictures.
The Croods tells the tale of the titular caveman family, teetering on the edge of extinction and evolution. A charming, hand-drawn animated intro tells how neighbouring clans have been wiped out by the creatively-punny creature inhabitants of the world, and how the Croods have survived solely thanks to the trepidation and brute strength of patriarch Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage). Grug - an ape-like looking caveman, with a tendency towards the overprotective - lives life by a hard-learned motto, "never not be afraid". His daughter, Eep (voiced by Emma Stone), though, in a classic Disney-manner, grows bored and restless, wanting to see the world. As is often the case - for me, anyway - this impatience comes across as reckless and ungrateful (although, hey, I suppose we've all been guilty of that attitude towards parents once or twice), but the DreamWorks story team handle it as well as any others have in the past. There are certainly comparisons to be drawn between Eep and Brave's Merida - although The Croods' heroine is much simpler in conceit, in that she, unlike Merida, very much does want to sample the men-folk.
Said men-folk are represented here by the more evolved Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds). Guy is capable of making fire, thinking and being generally funny, and indeed he is the most eminently likeable character in the film - thanks in no small part to Reynolds's great job voicing him. Eep is fascinated by Guy's prophesising the end of the world (and by his cute sloth companion, Belt - y'know, the one from the adverts). Sure enough, the next day, an almighty tremor destroys the Croods' cave and sees them sent running into previously unexplored lands: lush jungles, bright beaches and other similarly vividly impressive vistas. Along with Guy, the world's last caveman family set out on a road trip and spend the rest of the film trekking towards a split mountain that looks as though it should be housing the eye of Sauron.
The story may sound rather like a stock overprotective dad storyline (a la Hotel Transylvania), but it's actually pretty inventive and takes a few liberties with the ordinary plot, chucking in some genuinely touching character moments, a lot of belly laughs and some interesting twists. This family is always what is at the centre though and it does work as a very believable and empathetic unit - think The Incredibles meets Little Miss Sunshine, set on Avatar's Pandora.
Contrary to the idea you may get from promos, Eep isn't the main character of The Croods - she's more a tertiary lead - and her relationship with Guy is less in the focus than Grug's relationship with Guy and with himself. And this is just one of the many ways that I was pleasantly surprised by the plot of The Croods. Although the underlying plot may be a little commonplace, it's fresh to take a look at things from this perspective and the DreamWorks team handle it well. In terms of the story though, the film spent such a long time setting the scene and establishing the characters and their relationships, that the film's actual peril and eventual conclusion felt a little rushed; the film is hardly brief, at 98 minutes long, but it felt as though it would have benefited from an extra 10 to flesh out the middle of the film and not rush the satisfying developments at the end.
Although Grug and Guy are really the focus of the film - with Eep coming in a close third - a large portion of The Croods is spent fluffing up the rest of the family. Because of the pre-established lack of neighbouring families, there's little opportunity for a wide array of background characters, so the Croods really had to cover all of the audience's needs, and they actually do. Mum, Ugga, (Catherine Keener) is the pretty typical semi-open-minded-but-still-loyal-to-her-husband wife character, but she’s a far more likeable and interesting character than Rise of the Guardians' very dull Tooth. Gran (Cloris Leachman) fills the grouchy mother-in-law role and her love-hate relationship with Grug provides an awful lot of the film's laughs. Youngest child Sandy is an almost-savage little hunter, again proving a source of lots of chuckles. Eep's brother Thunk is a particular standout though: he's cute, he's funny, he's likeable - almost a prehistoric Russell from Up.
The characters are all intelligently and interestingly designed by the DreamWorks crew too (for more on that, see our The Art of The Croods review), and the studio's dedication to not glamorising the characters, and keeping them as realistic, brutish cavemen, is admirable, and a definite plus for the film. The most visually exciting characters in the film, though, are its animal inhabitants. The artists who made the film imagined weird and wacky hybrids of existing animals for the film, hence why you see flying turtles and 'girelephants'. My favourite animal character though (and I suspect this is a sentiment shared by many) was - as Gran dubbed him - "Chunky the Death-Cat". He was adorable and fun, and his and Grug's relationship, and its resolution, was one of many rewarding through-lines in the film. Although, it was one of so many rewarding through-lines, that the film often felt too packed with meaningful relationships and warm sentiment, and they all felt a little lesser for it in the end.
The film’s voice acting is an odd commodity: Emma Stone turns in a decent, if a little irritating, performance as Eep, and Ryan Reynolds is great as Guy, but Nic Cage is just odd and cringe-inducing as Grug. More impressive audio is provided by composer Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, The Avengers) who has crafted a great score that well suits the film: fun, but touching.
This late into the review, it feels as though we’re neglecting the obvious - the obvious being, of course, the film’s breathtaking visuals. I’ve read many a review that praises The Croods’ visuals – from the eloquent, “beautiful and picturesque”-type reviews, to the… shall we say?... less eloquent: “If the creators of The Flintstones had been on Crystal Meth” and “trippy as balls” – and none are quite hyperbole. The DreamWorks artisans have crafted a truly remarkable visual masterpiece: the staging, the camera angles, the vivid colours, the beautiful landscapes, the inventive vistas – everything is gorgeous and this may well be the most completely inviting, engulfing, enrapturing world the studio has created yet! The Croods is worth seeing for its visuals alone.
The film is directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, based on an idea that traces back all the way to 2005. In fact, the film (originally called Crood Awakening) was once upon a time being made by Aardman, under their previous deal with DreamWorks, from a story by DeMicco (Space Chimps) and Fawlty Towers's John Cleese. After leaving Disney amidst production woes on what would eventually become Bolt, Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch) came on board to direct. Sanders then left to co-helm with How to Train Your Dragon, before returning to co-direct The Croods with DeMicco in 2009. This bipartite and slightly hectic production shows in the film's sometimes clashing mix of comedy and tenderness, and that, in fact, was my main quibble with The Croods.
At times (particularly the first twenty minutes or so), it was the funniest of comedies. At others (particularly the last twenty minutes or so) it was the most touching of family journeys. But the fact of the matter is you can't be both in such close proximity without jarring the audience a bit. If the film's trying to make you laugh one minute and trying to tug at your heart strings the next, sure, it might work, but neither will happen to the same level or with the same certainty that they could if the film was more sure of itself - it worked in Argo, it doesn't quite work here. In the end, it's funny and it's touching, but I was left with the inescapable feeling that it could have been so much more of one, if it was a bit less of the other.
But, in the great scheme of things, that doesn't really matter. I thoroughly enjoyed The Croods and am eagerly anticipating seeing it again; it's fun, it's funny, it's emotionally rewarding - sure it could've been better, but it's already pretty good. I'm a huge fan of Chris Sanders' work (if How to Train Your Dragon came out any other year, he would already be an Oscar winner) and this is just another impressive feather in his filmmaking cap. He and DeMicco both bring a lot to the film; in the same way that The Croods is a film of two spirits - the warm and the comic - it is a film of two directors.
A thought on the ending though: are the Croods just going to keep running towards the sun for eternity? That seems like a bit of anti-climax - and in many ways the ending was a bit of a cheesy cop-out; it may have had more poignancy if they cut to black as Grug, Chunky and their Noah's Ark of animals leapt across the gorge. But then again, this isn't Inception, and it does need to cater towards the family audience. As it stands, the happy, loose-end-tying, ending that the film did have didn't bother me that much. It was hopeful, and is that really a bad thing?