Monday, April 1, 2013



- It's strange how the economics of showbiz work sometimes. From my standpoint, for example, Dreamworks Animation has been on quite the roll these last few years. Where I once considered them a weaksauce would-be Pixar, I now find many of their films to be right up there in the same upper-echelon of awesome as the Disney-owned 500 pound animation gorilla. Kung-Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon, Megamind ... these are some of my absolute favorite animated films of the last several years. And yet, it seems as though an underperforming film or two reportedly caused some major financial issues at the company, and suddenly, a lot was riding on their latest film, THE CROODS. Well, luckily for Dreamworks, The Croods was a box office success - hopefully, it keeps them afloat and making movies for a long time to come. But fortunately for fans of great animated movies, The Croods is also a major creative success. It's a visually-dazzling movie with a lot of heart, fun characters, fun humor, and a sensibility that will entertain kids and adults alike. The movie isn't sensory-overload like Wreck-It-Ralph, or as thematically complex as a Wall-E or Toy Story 3, but it's uber-enjoyable and well worth checking out.

THE CROODS tells the story of a caveman named Grug and his family, who live alone in rocky prehistoric terrain. They live alone because - as is explained in an amusing prologue - all of the other nearby families have met fairly horrible fates ... devoured by wild beasts, etc. Grug is convinced that the reason that his family has persevered is because of his super-paranoid, super-cautious, uber-overprotective ways. His family motto is "Never don't be scared." And he keeps his family sheltered in their cave - their only excursions are to go out hunting/gathering - adventures which unfold with the timed precision of a carefully-executed football play. Grug takes no chances, and leaves little room for improvisation or going off-script. This, of course, annoys his teenage cave-daughter, Eep. Eep wants to go out and explore and see the world. And she gets her chance, but not in the way she anticipated. Her world, and that of her whole family's, is turned upside down when Eep encounters Guy, an evolved human who is convinced that the world is headed for disaster of apocalyptic proportions, and that the only chance for survival is to hightail it to high ground, and head for the towering mountains that lie in the distant horizon. In fact, Guy is right - the continents are shifting, land masses are colliding, and major stuff is goin' down. And so even though it's very much against Grug's nature to leave his cave and venture out into the unknown, he reluctantly takes his family - along with the cavalier, inventive, and very un-Grug-like Guy.

The first act or so of The Croods can feel a little slow at times - there's a lot of slow-build in order to establish Grug's stubbornness and the father-daughter tension between him and Eep. But once the film gets a head of steam - as The Croods venture out into the brave new world and encounter all sorts of strange flora and fauna - it becomes very engrossing and quite the roller coaster ride. There are all sorts of captivating visuals - and a lot of imagination on display. Sure, some might take issue with the fact that the movie takes huge liberties with history (and reality), in that most of the primordial beasts that the Croods come across are pure fantasy. But it does allow for some dynamo sequences and some eye-popping encounters. In any case, all of that initial character work does eventually pay off. The third act - which puts the Croods (and Grug in particular) in some surprisingly harrowing situations - is very effective and quite emotional. While the movie is set in a heightened, oversaturated, prehistoric cartoon world - the family dynamics in the film really ring true. Anyone that's ever dealt with an overprotective dad - or been one themselves - will find a lot to relate to in the relationship between Grug and Eep. Point being: despite the cartoonish and over-the-top nature of the film, there's a real relatability and humanity to these characters.

Part of that is in the script, part of it is in the outstanding voice work in the film. Nicholas Cage, for one ... well, he just may have been born to voice a cartoon caveman. He does a great job as Grug - infusing him with his trademark manic energy, but also giving him a fatherly sense of nervousness mixed with determination to protect his family. Rarely has Nic Cage been in the sort of movie that you would call "heartfelt," but he does a great job of bringing the heart to The Croods. Same goes for Emma Stone as Eep - she's really, really good - a mix of teenage rebellion and cavegirl goofiness, she's a thickly-built brickhouse of a girl who can be both a badass huntress and a wide-eyed teen smitten with the mysterious Guy. Ryan Reynolds is also quite good as Guy - making him both a know-it-all and a dude who has to overcompensate a bit given his semi-tragic backstory. Similarly good are Catherine Keener as supportive cave-mom Ugga, Cloris Leachman as the wily grandma, and Clark Duke as well-intentioned son Thunk. It's an excellent cast, though I'd definitely call Cage and Stone the MVP's.

As far as the animation goes - the art style itself didn't wow me, but many of the action sequences were very, very impressive, and everything looked great in 3D. There are also some more serene sequences of the new world that are pretty gorgeously animated. Honestly, I've always been a sucker for stories that take place in prehistoric times, so I loved exploring the world here alongside the Croods.

And like I said, while the overall story is fairly simple, it works really well and is propelled by the character dynamics. The movie probably has one too many montages that conveniently help the film condense a lot of plot and character stuff into a couple of quick music-video-style sequences. But this is at it's core a fairly straightforward movie with a straightforward message. But that message - about *not* being afraid of new and different things, of new ideas and of new adventures - is delivered in a fun, entertaining, and sincere manner.

THE CROODS was a surprisingly fun and sweet adventure. I'd recommend it to any and all animation fans, and I would also suggest that the bar has now been raised pretty high for other animated films in 2013.

My Grade: B+

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