Voice talent: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener
Rating: 4/5 stars
The Croods is far from crude. In terms of 3D animation, it's state-of-the-art. I swooned at the beauty of the backgrounds, the photorealistic geological effects, the rich colour palette and the sense of depth that comes from 3D in the hands of people who know how to use it.
The film is set in prehistoric times, in a desert of dangerous critters. The Croods are a modern Stone Age family, although not like The Flintstones. They can speak, but they live in a cave without the benefit of fire. Their technology is primitive.
A more accurate comparison, somewhat controversially, is with Gogs, a cult series produced in the early '90s in Wales, by Aaargh Animation. The Gogs were a rough-hewn plasticine family whose behaviour was even rougher. The series combined slapstick humour and lots of bodily functions.
Crood Awakening, when announced in 2005, was a production by Aardman Animation for DreamWorks Animation. John Cleese and Kirk DeMicco wrote the first draft of the script for what was to be a stop-motion animation.
When Aardman broke with DreamWorks in 2007, the project reverted to DreamWorks. Chris Sanders, the director of Lilo & Stitch, joined to direct. He now shares that credit with DeMicco. Cleese gets a writing credit, although I don't know if he participated after Aardman split. DreamWorks has also changed horses - this is the first of their animations to be distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Whether or not the new film owes a debt to Gogs, I suspect it has been cleaned up in the trip across the Atlantic. The film has a whiff of sentimentality in the story of a young girl who finds romance and rediscovers the love of her family, but the schmaltz is less than it would have been 20 years ago, when Disney princesses ruled the drawing board.
True, animation in general is less sentimental than before. The rise of Pixar has helped modernise the way stories are now crafted. Most of the major Hollywood companies rely heavily on their animation divisions. DreamWorks has a lot riding on this film. They deserve a win: the film is funny and charming, carefully pitched to appeal to younger viewers, but with enough pace to satisfy the older, more jaded 10-year-old. It's drop dead gorgeous, with a fine voice cast and a surreal sense of natural design. It's a bit like a whimsical Dr Seuss story combined with the anarchy of a Tex Avery cartoon.
The directors use 3D superbly, combining it with an immediate point of view, so that we are placed right in the middle of the action. An example is the opening sequence, in which the Croods hunt for food.
Father Grug (Nicolas Cage) is a strong and careful caveman. He knows what's out there. At night, when he's telling stories, they all end with the death of the main character because they failed to heed the golden rule: never leave the cave at night, never stop being afraid. His headstrong daughter Eep (Emma Stone) flouts his rules. She's a typical teenager, a huffy spitfire in tight tiger skin. (The Croods are all oversized).
Eep's brother Thunk (Clark Duke) is another lump, in brain and brawn. Mother Ugga (Catherine Keener) is a peacemaker, who has her hands full with the hilarious toddler Sandy (Randy Thom), who runs on all fours and may be the most dangerous of the lot. The final member is Gran (Cloris Leachman), a thorn in Grug's side.
The film proceeds from sound anthropological principles, sort of. The Croods hunt as a team and what they catch, they eat raw. The hunt is a slapstick tour-de-force, perfectly timed and ambitiously conceived. It becomes like an American football game, as they steal the egg of a large and fanciful chicken.
Everything changes when Eep meets Boy - a stranger from another tribe. He can create fire and he says the world is about to end. They must get to higher ground. He's a dreamboat, an innovator and a harbinger of doom, all in one. The metaphors become more obvious: those who ignore the signs of change (geological or climate) will pay the price.
The film doesn't break new ground in its character animation, but it excels in the backgrounds, the pacing and the way the directors place us in the action. It's a breathtaking achievement on these technical levels, but in service of the whole. It will be understood by tender minds, as well as their custodians.
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