Friday, March 22, 2013

The Croods: Stone Age family frolic

The Croods (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, and needlessly, as this film is fine for all ages
By Derrick Bang

Although the enormously successful Ice Age franchise would seem to have captured the market for animated features set in prehistoric times, that series has focused exclusively on animals, while ignoring the early stirrings of humanity.

Clearly, that oversight begs to be addressed, and The Croods does so with considerable humor: much of it derived from the cheekily anachronistic manner in which these characters interact with an environment that never quite existed in our own past. Writer/directors Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco have set their saga — in their own words — somewhere between the Jurassic Age and the “Katzenzoic Era” ... which explains the colorful assortment of birds, reptiles and mammals that we’re unlikely to find in the fossil record.

Think of television’s The Flintstones, although considerably more primitive, and with a lot more attitude.

The Croods can be transfixed by the simplest things, and so we frequently see
expressions of awe fill the faces of, from left, Gran, Eep, Grug, Thunk, Sandy and
Ugga. And things get even better when they meet the new neighbor...

Our family is composed of a father figure, Grug (voiced by Nicholas Cage), who does his best to preserve the safety of his mate, Ugga (Catherine Keener); their adolescent son, Thunk (Clark Duke); and toddler Sandy (not really talking yet). The clan also includes Grug’s mother-in-law, Gran (Cloris Leachman); and typically rebellious teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone).

At first blush, it wouldn’t seem that Eep has much to rebel against, but in fact her home life has become insufferably claustrophobic. The Croods once shared their valley with several other family units, all of which have perished, often in some larger predator’s stomach.

As a result, the iron-handed Grug has issued a series of edicts that allows his family only two activities: foraging for food, and hunkering for safety in a dark cave. He regards their continued existence as proof that his various credos are the height of wisdom: Fear is good, change is bad; Anything fun is bad; and Never not be afraid.

A rather stifling set of rules, particularly for a headstrong and curious young woman who wants to live, and see more of her world.

Following a brief explanatory prologue, in order to set the stage, Sanders and DeMicco open their story with a frenetic set piece: a typical egg hunt, in order to secure breakfast. This hilarious sequence has the rip-snortin’ pace of a classic Warner Bros. cartoon short, with Alan Silvestri’s equally tumultuous score further propelling the action. I promise, you’ll gasp for breath, mostly from laughing so hard.

It’s a great way to introduce these six characters, and their dangerous environment.

Although poor Eep has no reason to expect the dull routine to change, she’s awakened one night by a strange glowing something that dances about, leaving bright embers in its wake. Defying her father’s primary safety rule, she leaves the cave and follows this small, bobbing “sun” ... and thus gains her first glimpse of fire.

And of Guy (Ryan Reynolds), the rather unusual young man wielding it.

Guy isn’t merely a few steps higher on the evolutionary ladder; he’s several floors more advanced, both in terms of physique and intelligence. Grug and his family haven’t developed anything more advanced than cave painting — in other words, not even the most rudimentary tool — but after a few minutes with Guy, we’re sure he’d know how to place all the forks in the most complicated high-society table setting.

He invents things constantly, whether umbrellas or fur-lined boots to protect sensitive feet from sharp-edged rocks and shells. Naturally, being a typical young woman, Eep adores getting a new pair of shoes; that throwaway gag is typical of the snarky, future-referencing humor with which Sanders and De Micco fill their script. Their story isn’t merely amusing; it’s frequently clever ... and always rich with imagination.

This obviously is a warped, parallel-world version of our own pre-history, but Sanders and De Micco are careful to establish a rigorous set of rules, and then follow them.

The biggest narrative leap is the fact that Guy somehow knows that massive change is imminent, and that their land soon will be rent with massive storms and earthquakes. Geologically speaking, the continents are about to be shaped, and Guy has been heading for safer ground. (One also wonders how he knows where “safer ground” will be, but we gotta just go with the flow.)

Grug, naturally, is horrified. Guy’s very presence is change with a capital “C”; far worse is his insistence that their lifestyle must be uprooted. Fortunately (?), a slight seismic shift makes the decision for them, at which point everybody reluctantly embarks on a journey that promises all sorts of the fear-laced unknowns that Grug has worked so hard to avoid.

Well ... not everybody is reluctant. Guy seems to know what he’s doing — even if he’s initially trapped within a dead tree trunk carried by Grug — and Eep is swooningly content to follow this hunky new fella to the ends of the Earth. Which might be where they’re going.

This new dynamic is just as contemporary as the whimsical generation gap that keeps Grug and his impulsive daughter at odds with each other; now he’s got this cute boy to worry about, as well. Guy, in turn, recognizes the likely consequences, should he allow this lovestruck young woman to throw herself at him ... since her father is strong enough to eliminate annoyances by hurling them halfway to the horizon.

Sanders and De Micco make a great creative team, which is frankly intriguing, because their respective résumés couldn’t be more different. De Micco has a short list of credits that, until now, has been limited to puerile, family-friendly junk such as Space Chimps, Racing Stripes and Casper’s Scare School. Sanders, in great contrast, is a prolific and quite accomplished Disney alum who cut his teeth co-scripting Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King before concocting the premise for Lilo & Stitch and earning his first directorial credit with that film.

More significantly, Sanders then hopped over to DreamWorks, teamed up with Dean DeBlois and graced us with How to Train Your Dragon, still one of the finest animated fantasies of the 21st century. The Croods isn’t in that classic’s league, but this new collaboration with De Micco is equally adept at appealing to all ages.

Sanders, it should be mentioned, also is an occasional voice actor. He supplied the not quite intelligible squeaks, squawks and grunts for Stitch, a trick he repeats here by voicing Belt, a tame — and very smart — sloth that, yes, holds up Guy’s pants. Belt represents another new concept for the Croods: a “pet,” meaning “an animal you don’t eat.”

Belt also supplies well-timed, orchestral-style fanfares, to punctuate particularly triumphant moments. Which, naturally, drives Grug even crazier.

Cage should think hard about doing more voice work, because — sad to say — this is his best film since the first National Treasure, almost a decade ago. He’s great as a harried father figure, and his various frustrated asides are perfectly timed. His best moment comes as Grug loftily insists that he’s just as clever as Guy, in terms of inventing things; Cage’s effort at faux sophistication, in this sequence, is to die for.

When it comes to snarky one-liners, though, Leachman takes top honors; she earns a chuckle from pretty much every word that snidely escapes between Gran’s lips. Stone is equally well cast, turning Eep into a stalwart heroine who (it must be said) is far more interesting, as a character, than Merida, in last year’s Brave.

Reynolds imbues Guy with an appropriate blend of spirit and valor, while carefully adding a self-deprecating tone that is mindful of Grug’s hair-trigger temper.

Duke isn’t able to be much more than whiney, in part because Thunk is an under-developed stereotype: the dopey little brother. Ugga, as well, rarely displays much personality; Keener does little beyond making her the voice of reason, while trying to placate Grug. The overall character development, then, is a bit uneven: unfortunate, since we have only eight characters to begin with.

The animation style deliberately leans toward cartoonish exaggeration, while at the same time acknowledging real-world behavior; watch the way Eep crouches, as she sees fire for the first time, or the decidedly feline attitude displayed by this saga’s version of a saber-tooth tiger. Mild nods toward evolutionary development also are present; Eep initially runs on all fours, occasionally switching to just her two legs ... and then tries to limit herself to the latter, after encountering the most decidedly two-legged Guy.

So yes, The Croods is a larkish fantasy, but the story gets its drama from both recognizable personalities and the dire implications that we’ll recall from school. If Grug and his family are Cro-Magnons — or European Early Modern Humans, to employ the preferred formal term — and Guy is the future, well, we know what that means: Those who can’t adapt must perish, like the Neanderthals who vanished from our own fossil record.

Pretty heavy stuff for what mostly seems a frivolous storyline ... but, then, we relate better to these characters, and their adventures, because of such nods to our own real world.

And don’t fret: Most of the time, The Croods is just a lot of fun, and laced with enough creative, colorful detail to demand repeat viewing.

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