Prehysteric road trip: Emma Stone and Nicolas Cage get animated for DreamWorks family adventure 'The Croods'

For decades, the Flintstones of Bedrock have been thought of as prehistory's first family, but now there's a new clan of animated cavemen (and women) looking to challenge them for that title. Individually, they are papa Grug (Nicolas Cage), mama Ugga (Catherine Keener), teen daughter Eep (Emma Stone), tween son Thunk (Clark Duke), toddler Sandy (anonymous growler) and grandma Gran (Cloris Leachman), but collectively they are the Croods, the titular stars of DreamWorks Animation's latest 3D-enhanced cartoon blockbuster, The Croods, which opens on March 22.

Set during Earth’s ancient (and entirely fictional) Croodaceous period, the film depicts both a planet and a family unit that's constantly evolving, sometimes violently so. Up until this point, Grug has been able to keep his wife and children safe from the many and varied dangers of the world (which include, but aren't limited to predators, bad weather and disease) by seeking shelter in a cave, but when a series of destructive earthquakes buries their underground domicile, they have to find a new home—a mission that will force them to actually experience the world instead of hiding from it.

Enter Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a lone traveler with a few new tricks up his sleeve, most notably a handy heating source known as fire. He’s on his way to a distant mountain where a brave new world supposedly awaits and his promises of a better life capture the imagination of the Crood clan, Eep in particular. (It goes without saying that she and the strapping young Guy also form a more…um, personal bond.) So, over Grug’s loud objections, they decide to tag along, thus embarking on—as Croods directors Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders are fond of saying—the first-ever family road trip. And, De Micco adds, that's not the only first that The Croods represents. "We've always thought about this as being DreamWorks's first family film that's actually about a family, one where everyone is still alive and on the screen at once," he says, on the phone with Sanders from the studio's California headquarters. "In showing the film to people, we've seen that they really relate to the story of an entire family's journey; everyone has someone they can point to and say, 'I know that person.'"

The notion of a prehistoric family road trip may sound like a natural high-concept pitch for an animated comedy, but in fact, it took almost four years for The Croods to arrive at that premise. The movie’s origins date back to 2004, when De Micco teamed up with Monty Python alum John Cleese to develop a stop-motion version of the project for the British animation house Aardman, which DreamWorks was partnered with at the time. In that incarnation, the Croods weren’t living on their own in a deep, dank cave, but rather in a village alongside other prehistoric families a la The Flintstones (minus all the retro-modern devices, of course). When Aardman and DreamWorks parted ways two years later, studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg encouraged De Micco to keep working on the film even though the story didn’t seem to be clicking.

Then, in 2007, help arrived in the form of Chris Sanders, co-director of the hit 2003 Walt Disney cartoon Lilo & Stitch, who had left the Mouse House to come make movies at DreamWorks. Presented with all the films his new employer had in development, he wound up choosing to work on what was then being called Crood Awakening with De Micco. The duo continued to refine the village-based idea, but, as Sanders describes it, “We developed it to the point where we just couldn't develop it any further and it still wasn't coming off the ground.”

With Crood Awakening stuck in second gear, Sanders was asked to assume the reins of the studio’s 2010 hit How to Train Your Dragon alongside his Lilo & Stitch collaborator, Dean DeBlois. Just when it looked like the Croods’ adventure would be over before it even began, De Micco experienced a eureka moment. “One day while I was working on Dragon, Kirk gave me a call and said, ‘I want to pitch you something,’” Sanders recalls. “He told me, ‘A single family loses their cave and go on the world's first family road trip to find another one and on that journey they change.’ I was so excited. I told him, ‘That's it, you've done it—you've solved the problem.’ The idea behind the film was always that there's an exterior journey happening, but that there’s also a much more important internal journey that the family’s going on. The internal journey was the same story being told when they were all still in the village and that was actually one of the problems, because with the cavemen anchored somewhere, it was difficult to get the parallel exterior journey going. It was also hard to create a villain that worked, since our villain is unusual in that it's the planet itself and change itself. That's why the whole movie is set in cavemen times, when change is happening literally underneath your feet. This story of change was difficult to get going when everyone was in the village, so when Kirk broke the chains and set the family free to move, that's when the villain in our story could find its voice.”

The shift from a village to the open road also snapped a key relationship in the film into sharper focus, specifically the one between Eep and Grug. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that the filmmakers aren’t just recounting the story of the first family road trip—they’re telling the first father/daughter story, which, like every such tale told since, involves a daughter eager to establish her independence, while her father has trouble letting go of the young woman who used to be his little girl.

“When The Croods was still in the village, Guy and Grug would go out together and solve their problems and then come back to Eep,” De Micco says. “The problem with that was that everyone would be like, ‘I love Eep! Are we having more scenes with her?’ We’d say, ‘But it's about these two guys [having adventures], like Midnight Run,’ and they’d answer back, ‘Why can’t she come?’ So that’s what helped us decide to put everybody in the van for a road trip.”

The director adds that casting Stone went a long way towards making Eep a more commanding presence in the finished film. “Chris and I were lucky enough to be giant fans of The House Bunny. We saw Emma in that and absolutely loved her, and this was well before The Help or Easy A. She's so animated as an actor in her facial expressions and attitude and we really enjoyed the opportunity to watch her riff in the recording booth. And Nic’s performance enhances his character as well. Grug is a hero who has his heart in the right place every frame of the film; he's not a guy who wants to be famous and learns a lesson—he's just a guy who wants to protect his family. There's so much empathy in Nic’s performance and you feel the weight of the world on his shoulders every step of the way.”

As the Croods make their way to the distant mountain Guy’s always jawing about, they experience all the wonders—not to mention all the perils—of the Croodaceous period, from lush forests and steaming tar pits to plus-sized corn kernels (which naturally produces giant popcorn when heated up) and creatures that are imaginative hybrids of familiar animals. In other words, it’s a world that’s still recognizably Earth, but with a number of fantastical flourishes.

“In all of DreamWorks’ animated movies, there's one gimme that you have to take and that the audience has to give you,” De Micco explains. “Gimmes like ‘There are dragons in the world’ or ‘Animals talk.’ Our gimme in this movie is that the period we've ‘discovered’/created is truly unique. We wanted the audience to have the feeling of relatability to their family in this situation, but making sure there’s some fantasy and magic to the world we're creating. The fun of it really was in creating this time between times and everything on the screen is from the artists’ imaginations. Unlike other animated films where you're sitting there going, ‘This story is set in San Francisco,’ in this one we had no real starting place and could come up with anything. That was so exciting at the beginning, but it also became very daunting because it was like, ‘Okay where do we start?’ The artists really embraced it and it's a testament to the kind of people we have working here, because they had to go through quite a few iterations to find the right tone—to have the whimsical style of an animated film, but also keep it grounded enough so that the stakes were believable. We wanted people to feel that this family is in peril and to be concerned for them in a way that they probably didn’t think they would be in the beginning with all the broad comedy.”

Sanders credits Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, who served as a visual consultant on both How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods, and composer Alan Silvestri with further aiding the production team in making the “time between times” setting feel authentic. “Roger’s influence pervades everything we do here at DreamWorks now. We feel that most animated films are overlit, because it’s easy to add virtual lights. You say, ‘I want to get some light underneath their eyes,’ so you put a light down low. or ‘I want to see that tree,’ so you put a light over there and before long you've got 50 lights lighting a scene and it looks just like a shadow-free environment, which makes things look toy-like and unreal. Some people go for that, but for us we want to believe this world is real. So Roger's philosophy of removing lights whenever possible is one we subscribe to. We're comfortable with the idea of our sets sometimes falling away into shadow. And as far as the music goes, one of the things we did from the beginning was build houses for the score, moments and scenes that transcend dialogue and that we planned to hand to Alan, like when Eep sees fire for the first time and the Croods see the night sky for the first time.

When we re-began the movie [after Dragon], we had serious discussions about what level of communication the characters were going to enjoy and did discuss a more Quest for Fire [Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1981 live-action caveman film, which lacked conventional dialogue] approach. The story gave us the answer; with the complexity and subtlety of the story we were telling, the Croods needed to speak, but we kept our eyes and ears open for anything visually or verbally that would break the world. And then we let the music do the talking in the most profound moments.”

Now that De Micco and Sanders have told the story of the first family road trip, the obvious question is: Will the Croods take mankind’s second family road trip a few years from now? De Micco hints that the material certainly exists for another adventure. “The interesting thing is that we've done so much work on this movie and there are so many sequences that we storyboarded and never used—certain detours to the main adventure that were always intriguing and fun. It’s a rich, evocative world and everyone was inspired to come up with ideas. We built 39 creatures for this film and only used 21, so we'd love to see the other 18 get their time in the sun. We'll have to see about that.”