One of last year’s most exciting trends was the emergence of great animated movies outside of the Pixar wheelhouse. While the acclaimed animation studio was busy releasing Brave, arguably their safest effort to date, Laika Animation Studios was pushing the animated art form to new extremes with the ingenious ParaNorman while Disney’s solo animation branch was turning in heartfelt gems like Frankenweenie and Wreck-It Ralph. In the heyday of the Shrek and Madagascar franchises, DreamWorks Animation was probably Pixar’s biggest rival, though the desire to continue launching franchises has bit DreamWorks in the butt thanks to underwhelming efforts Megamind, Puss in Boots, and Rise of the Guardians. And yet, just when DreamWorks was falling into last place, here comes The Croods, a rather simple movie about a prehistoric family-at-odds that hits all the right emotional chords and provides some of the most beautiful animation ever done outside of Pixar. Not since Ang Lee’s Life of Pi has a movie been so dazzlingly eye-popping.
Mixing up the family dynamics of The Incredibles with the slapstick comedy of The Flintstones and the visual wonder of Avatar, The Croods will certainly entertain young viewers and should easily keep parents enjoyed too throughout the 98-minute run-time. The wonderful Emma Stone voices Eep, a high-spirited, redheaded teenager with a passion for adventure (she’s very much in line with Brave’s Merida). Unfortunately, Eep’s overprotective father, Grug (Nicholas Cage), is the opposite, a worry wart trying to keep his family safe from the dangerous faun and flora of the prehistoric age, which includes forcing them to spend most of their days in the darkness of their cave. But everything’s about to change as the continents begin to crash and break, forcing the Croods out of their cave and head first into the exhilarating world the animators at DreamWorks have dreamed up. Along for the ride is the inventive Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a suave cave-boy who has a plan to survive the prehistoric apocalypse and who catches the eye of our spunky protagonist.
With a straightforward story, The Croods hits all the plot points you know are coming (dad getting in the way of blossoming young love, Eep trying to come to an understanding with her father, etc.), but the voice work of the actors keeps things engaging and humorous throughout. Stone’s natural husk is perfect for the always-frustrated Eep and Ryan Reynolds is quite the charmer, never afraid to let out a girlish scream or two in order to show his character’s humbleness, which puts him in direct contrast to Cage’s worrisome Grug. Rounding out the cast is Catharine Keener, always so inviting and ethereal, as mother Ugga, Cloris Leachman as loud mouth Gran, and Clark Duke as brother Thunk, a dim witted cave-boy whose slow thinking and mindless behavior provides some of the film’s biggest laughs. Equally as funny are baby Sandy, a ferocious little tike, and Guy’s pet sloth Belt, whose name comes from the fact that Guy uses him as an early version of a belt. When Belt sings out “Dun, Dun, Dun” – a recurring line in the movie – you’ll be cracking up, I guarantee it.
While the film’s inventiveness is enjoyable – favorite moments of mine include the creation of early photography and the family’s bewilderment over fire – the animation is what really makes this picture worth the price of admission. Honestly, this is the best animation DreamWorks has ever put on screen – bright, jaw-droppingly colorful, and wildly imaginative. In 3D the film pops, but I’m sure in 2D the film is even more brimming with color and life. From the thrilling opening hunt for food to the many adventures the Croods have out on the road – they encounter large and tiny beasts, both of which provide danger and intensity to the movie – DreamWorks has crafted their own version of Avatar’s Pandora and it’s absolutely exhilarating to behold, especially when the family makes their way through a stone maze and stumble across a Eden like jungle of stunning beauty. I’m not always one to put visuals over story, but here the visuals are almost essential for just as the Croods are experiencing the fascinations of this prehistoric world, so are we and we have DreamWorks to thank for it.
The Croods is certainly not an animated milestone a la the countless efforts from Pixar, but who cares when the story provides laughs and heart and the visuals provide the reason we go to the movies in the first place: to be transported to other worlds and see things we could only dream of. That’s a great way to describe The Croods – a dream world; I’m already itching to go back…
Review by Zack Sharf