Film Review: The Croods

Fast-paced, inventive animated comic adventure of a Stone Age family gets an extra boost from the lively vocal performances of stars Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds.

“The Flintstones” may be a bedrock of TV animation, but there’s a whole generation or three who wouldn’t know Fred from Barney, Wilma from Betty. So the time is ripe for a new prehistoric family to capture the imaginations of the kid audience, and DreamWorks Animation’s Crood clan does it with dazzling 3D style.

A project first developed in 2005 by Monty Python alum John Cleese (who gets a story credit) for stop-motion house Aardman Animation, The Croods has evolved into a fast-paced CGI comedy that ranks with the best of DreamWorks’ recent output. Writer-directors Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon) and Kirk DeMicco (Space Chimps) put a lot into the mix: a looming apocalypse, a constant battle to survive, ferocious predators, plus more relatable matters like friction between an overprotective father and a rebellious daughter, the blossoming of young love, and the thrill of new discoveries. The action is consistently lively enough to delight very young viewers, while the character interactions have the kind of nuance that will satisfy their parents or guardians.

A hand-drawn opening, showing the terrible fates of neighboring families, establishes that the Croods are an especially hardy bunch just by virtue of staying alive. Much of that has to do with the justifiably cautious outlook of patriarch Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage), whose basic philosophy is “Fear is good, change is bad.” But his teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone) chafes against his strictures, refusing to be part of the family’s nightly “sleep pile” and often venturing outside alone. One such excursion leads her to Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a much more enlightened (and quite hunky) young primitive who wows Eep with his mastery of the awesome phenomenon we know as fire. But Guy also bears some awful news: A great cataclysm is coming, and it’s time to retreat to new terrain.

The Crood family (which also includes mother Ugga, younger son Thunk, feral infant Sandy, and Ugga’s wizened mother Gran) soon find themselves at the center of an earthquake that destroys their sheltering cave, leaving them with no choice but to set off for parts unknown. Along the way, Eep reunites with Guy, much to the annoyance of Grug, who resents not only the boy’s closeness to his daughter but the threat this resourceful young upstart poses to his authority.

Beginning pre-quake with rather barren landscapes, The Croods expands out to fantastical, riotously colorful realms that rival the CG designs of Avatar. And those new horizons are populated with a zany array of fanciful creatures, such as bear-owls, mini-elephants, and a canine/crocodile hybrid that becomes history’s first pet. Most fearsome of all are the piranhakeets, parakeets with razor-sharp teeth that annihilate every living thing they encounter.

Sanders and DeMicco’s script has other clever notions, including a prehistoric variation on the snapshot, Eep’s reaction to her first pair of shoes, a novel use of puppetry to get out of a dire situation, and a giant popcorn explosion which could inspire repeat visits to the concession stand. They also take vivid advantage of the 3D format, especially when dust motes and sparks from Guy’s fire seem to fill the auditorium.

One of the non-CGI surprises of The Croods is the fully committed performance of Nicolas Cage. His Grug has every reason to be wary and fretful, and he’s completely unmoored by the sudden loss of his cave sanctuary and by so much dreaded newness invading his life. This rigid patriarch is the butt of many of the movie’s jokes, but Cage brings real poignancy to his dilemma, the kind anyone who’s faced a devastating change can relate to.

Stone, with her appealing feistiness, is perfect casting as Eep, and Reynolds gets to apply both his leading-man charm and comic timing to Guy, who is initially overwhelmed by the roughshod lifestyle of this family on a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder. Catherine Keener brings her usual warmth to the underwritten role of mom Ugga, while comedy veteran Cloris Leachman shows sass as Gran, whose constant hectoring inspires the very first mother-in-law jokes. Watch out, Flintstones, the Crood era has begun.