Although state-of-the-art in its rendering of textures, movement and stereography, DreamWorks’ latest 3D toon, “The Croods,” adopts a relatively primitive approach to storytelling with its Flintstonian construction of stock, ill-fitting narrative elements. Part family adventure story, part romance and part eye-popping thrill ride, this tale of a prehistoric family seeking a new home in a dangerous and geologically volatile environment won’t have the broad appeal of DreamWorks’ “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda” pics, or Fox’s own B.C.-era “Ice Age” franchise. But it should prove a solid earner after its March 22 release in a frame relatively free of rival predators.
Conceived in 2005 under the catchier title “Crood Awakening,” with John Cleese and trade journo-turned-agent-turned-screenwriter Kirk DeMicco (“Racing Stripes”) set to script, “The Croods” was intended to further DreamWorks’ collaboration with Aardman Animation (“Chicken Run,” “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” “Flushed Away”) before the two companies parted ways in 2006. DeMicco and animation vet Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch”) share scripting and directing duties, with Cleese co-credited for the story.
The main element from “Crood Awakening” that seems to have survived the transition to the screen is the premise of brutish cavepeople who meet a more evolved humanoid with clever ideas up his fur sleeve, like how to make fire. But instead of the original project’s quasi-Neanderthal community, the core characters here are a frightened family of six called the Croods, seemingly the last of their species after natural selection has chewed its way through their neighbors.
Enjoined by patriarch Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage) to “never not be afraid,” the Croods hunt as a pack by day and huddle in a cave by night to hide from a delightfully designed bestiary of made-up monsters, such as the self-explanatory Bear Owl and the Macawnivore, a colorful saber-toothed tiger variant roughly the size of a rhino. Grug’s wife, Ugga (Catherine Keener); doltish son, Thunk (Clark Duke); tart-tongued mother-in-law, Gran (Cloris Leachman); and ferociously belligerent toddler daughter, Sandy (“Release the baby!” is one of the pic’s funnier catchphrases), are all content to stick to the routine. But teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone) longs for broader horizons and a literally brighter view of the world.
Enter Guy (Ryan Reynolds), the only survivor of a family that, judging by his svelter frame, more erect posture and higher forehead, must have been a bit further up the evolutionary ladder. Although most of the Croods are impressed with Guy’s innovations, like fire and shoes, Grug wants no truck with this young hotshot who’s winning Eep’s heart, or any of his newfangled ideas. However, when it starts to look like Guy may be right about the world breaking up, they have no choice but to seek greener pastures.
The main problem with the film is that the script simply isn’t very funny, and its various subplots never quite mesh satisfyingly together; apart from Grug, Eep and Guy, the other characters add little to the proceedings apart from a few feeble jokes. Yet these story deficiencies are fairly well papered over by the pacey, smoothly animated action scenes, delivered at regular intervals. Highlights include an early hunt, with a football-like egg passed from character to character, that gains much from well-timed, Wile E. Coyote-style slapstick; and a nifty escape sequence involving volcanic eruptions, sticky tar and, of all things, makeshift puppets.
Younger auds will be hypnotized by the pic’s scorching color palette, particularly in the “Avatar”-like jungle setting, and throughout the animators have lavished loving attention on how different kinds of light (moon, sun, fire) play on the surfaces of skin, fur and landscape. Presumably, it’s in this area that ace lenser Roger Deakins lent his services as a visual consultant, as he did on DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon.”
Character design, however, is less adroit, although the Croods’ stocky, simplistic figures will lend themselves well enough to merchandising. Onscreen, they’re not terribly appealing, and Eep’s helmet-like hair and East German weightlifter physique make her a somewhat awkward match with the spindly Guy, even if it’s laudable for the animators to have designed a young heroine who doesn’t fit the usual Barbie-doll proportions.