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When it comes to computer-animated feature films, descriptions like “heartwarming” and “classic” have long been the domain of Pixar. Almost no one would think to apply them to DreamWorks, the studio that gave audiences the snarky fractured fairytales of the Shrek franchise, along with Kung Fu Panda and the Madagascars.
But with its latest computer-animated effort, The Croods (rated PG for mildly scary action), DreamWorks may finally be ready to try something other than the frenetic pacing, pop-culture references, and sly winks at adult humor that built the studio brand. The story of a family of cave people trying to outrun the end of the world is surprisingly sincere and charming, with nary a double entendre in sight.
Nicholas Cage (who is less cartoony as an animated character than he is as a live action performer) voices Grug, the overprotective father of a Stone Age clan that includes his wife, Ugga (Catherine Keener), his teenage daughter, Eep (Emma Stone), his slow-witted son, Thunk (Clark Duke), and his seemingly indestructible mother-in-law (Cloris Leachman), as well as a freckle-faced feral infant. Like any good dad, Grug knows that his No. 1 job is to protect his family, and he takes his role seriously. But when Eep starts to flout his rules (fear anything new and never go outside the cave at night), she meets the biggest threat Grugg has ever faced—the teenage boy.
To make matters worse, it turns out the teen, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), has a few things right—destruction is coming and Grug’s tried-and-true methods for keeping his family safe will no longer work. If he wants his brood to survive, let alone thrive, he will have to let Guy lead them out of their dark cave and into a bright new land.
It speaks to the wholesomeness of the comedy and the family values the script champions that it would be easy to see Spencer Tracy voicing Cage’s role 60 years ago. This isn’t to suggest the film is all morality and no fun. The Croods is packed with laughs. More laughs than I ever had from the inappropriate, anachronistic puns in the Shrek movies. The spectacle of Grug grappling with the newfangled ideas of his daughter’s budding prince charming is a timeless setup that works as well in the prehistoric era as it does in the new millennium, and writer/director Chris Sanders plays it for everything it’s worth.
But refreshingly, this doesn’t make Grug the goon we often see fathers portrayed as these days. He may be a little set in his ways, but his heart is clearly in the right place, and at the crucial moment it is dad who keeps his cool and sacrifices himself to shepherd his family to safety. Even better, the relationship between father and daughter, and even father and lonely young man looking for a father figure, takes primacy over any romantic entanglements. We’re clear that Eep is, literally and hilariously, on the hunt for Guy, but its never clear that Guy is hunting back.
To only mention the story, however, would do a disservice to the spectacular world-building that rivals (and clearly owes a debt to) the effects that blew audiences away in Avatar. Though it would have been easy in a movie about cavemen to throw in some macro-evolution gags, The Croods avoids even this to spoil anyone’s fun. The world we see almost belies any notion that we’re dealing with creatures that ever existed on Earth. Flying piranha birds, dayglo tigers, and alligator dogs are just a few of the fantastical beasts the travelers encounter, and they are so stunningly realized they’re sure to keep even the youngest youngsters’ eyes glued to the screen.
A few news outlets have reported that shares of DreamWorks dropped slightly due to early indications The Croods won’t perform as well as some of DreamWorks’ past animated offerings. If so, it would be a shame, because it’s the best film they’ve offered kids (and their parents) to date.