“Never not be afraid”
One credit has fascinated me since The Croods opened in theaters: story by John Cleese. That John Cleese? Surprisingly, yes. It’s a somewhat convoluted journey from his failed adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s The Twits with Kirk DeMicco catching the eye of Dreamworks and earning them the pick of the litter as far as in production pitches at the studio. They chose one about a stereotypical caveman and his “modern” counterpart running from the volcanic apocalypse plate tectonics wrought. It was set up at Aardman, left for dead in 2007, reignited by director Chris Sanders, and ultimately rewritten alongside a newly returned DeMicco in 2009 before stalling a couple more times along the home stretch. Despite all that, I’d like to think the ingenious Monty Python-esque slapstick invention of the photographic “snapshot” was Cleese’s from the start.
In all honesty, though, you have to give Sanders and DeMicco credit for turning what looked to be—and pretty much is—a run-of-the-mill family conquers all/patriarch accepting the inevitability of his daughter growing up plotline into a fun, zany, and sometimes completely off-the-wall family flick. Should it be up for an Oscar? Any other year I’d probably say no, but in 2013 it really might be a top five contender. The animation is surprisingly great once you look past the plastic-like embellishments of the Cro-Magnon nuclear family, the message is relevant and life-affirming for children, and who can’t relate with loner Guy (Ryan Reynolds) trying to survive in the wild alone in order to live out his dying parents’ last, metaphorical wish? Yes, it can get pretty dark and heavy when necessary too.
At the center of it all, though, is tough guy father Grug (Nicolas Cage) and his cooped-up daughter Eep (Emma Stone) wanting nothing more than to escape the solitude of living scared in a cave twenty hours a day. All the neighbors have died out either brutally by animals, not so brutally by animals, or courtesy of the common cold. Only the titular Croods are left, abiding by the man of the house’s strategy of hunting for eggs and running back to shelter before telling a gruesome cautionary tale prior to bedtime so his other kids Thunk the dullard (Clark Duke) and feral baby Sandy (Randy Thom) obey him at all costs. Like all rebellious teens, however, Eep can’t help trying to break loose until the chance appearance of fire flickers underneath the boulder blocking their cave’s entrance one night.
It’s Guy wielding his mini sun with pet sloth-ish Belt (Sanders), traveling to the giant mountain at the end of the Earth in hopes salvation from the quakes and volcanoes exists. The usual awkward romance ensues with Eep desiring anything shiny and new while Grug despises the boy for moving in on his job as protector despite always saving the day. Physical comedy increases as Guy gets unwittingly thrust into a pissing contest with the brutish leader—held prisoner, wanting to escape, and ultimately finding morality and feelings for Eep getting the better of him. Mom Ugga (Catherine Keener) and the elder Gran (Cloris Leachman) round out the cast of cavemen against the bright world of carnivorous flowers and piranha birds that are unlike anything they’ve yet seen in their darkly dusty, cavernous past.
The filmmakers thankfully don’t bog things down with song interludes, instead relying on the character dynamics to propel us towards an ending that sadly goes on forever (the one glaring misstep of an otherwise effective comedy). They’ve crafted an imaginative world with giraffe elephants, elephant mice, bobble-head sabretooths, and flying turtles; littered the proceedings with fun parallels to modern day pets like Douglas the dog-like creature playing fetch with Thunk; and kept the heartwarming thaws as minimalist and crucial as possible to not completely derail the jokes running rampant throughout. You can only go so far with the tear-jerking schmaltz when Gran is shown resorting to cannibalism and Grug constantly smiling when he thinks she might be dead. To some such things may seem tonally off for a kid’s film, but I enjoyed the irreverent humor.
Cage is at his over-the-top best with a voice and mannerisms perfectly suited for children’s fare; Stone and Reynolds nicely render their progressive adventurers with humanity, compassion, and everyday heroics; and the rest add flourishes at just the right time for more random comedy than I expected. Subversive enough for older audiences, it’s also a hoot for kids while ingraining the idea parents love and look out for them even when acting strict and irrational. Whether or not the inevitable sequel and expanded universe through television will prove fruitful—it made almost six hundred million worldwide off a one hundred and thirty-five million dollar budget—I don’t know. It’s innocuous enough to mirror Dreamworks’ trajectories for Shrek and Madagascar, though, so all the power to them. Hopefully it’ll just keep getting better like the latter.
courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation