You won’t hate yourself for sitting through The Croods. It doesn’t shame cinema by its existence, it won’t turn your children into deviant sociopaths (unless they were that way already) and its lessons, while trite and one-note, certainly merit attentions. It’s the kind of family entertainment that children love and parents indulge solely because they know how much worse it can get. It’s product, pure and simple: dependable, disposable and forgotten as soon as it serves its purpose. That makes it hard to hate, but equally hard to get excited about.
The central problem is all-too familiar. The filmmakers put years of effort into creating a glorious world, then scribbled the story down in about a minute and a half. The landscapes and creatures reflect a boundless imagination, with designers going the extra mile to dazzle our senses. Vivid colors pop out at us from every corner, while the flora and fauna display a creativity rarely seen in family animation. The animals resemble the Stone Age beasties we expect – mammoths, sabretooths and whatnot – but with a few extra features thrown in to make them stand out. The title cave-family, for instance, gets chased by a predator that looks more owl than cat, while a stampeding mastodon displays a giraffe’s fur pattern on its pelt.
Directors Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders enhance that with their inventive set pieces, usually involving a lot of comedic pratfalls as various threats pursue the Croods across the screen. As cartoon hijinks go, it proves tough to beat, its basic slapstick strengthened by the gorgeous design work bringing it all to life.
And yet with so much in its corner, you’d think they could develop a better script than the repetitive “dad needs to grow up” scenario from the bottom of someone’s high-concept rejection file. The film’s not-so-modern family has survived most of their lives by hiding in their cave, zipping out to snatch some food, then huddling in the dark while savage nature rampages outside. Father Grug (Nicolas Cage) thinks that’s the only way life can be, but his teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone) longs for more. She gets it – and more – with the arrival of Guy (Ryan Reynolds), an evolved man who has discovered such modern conveniences as fire, shoes, and thinking ahead. With continental upheaval suddenly forcing them out of their comfort zone, the Croods must adapt to his new way of thinking or die.
It’s thin soup to begin with, even without the tired pastiche of a rebellious teenager and the parent who just doesn’t get her. The Croods injects modern sensibilities into its characters’ speech patterns, which establishes a nice base line for the comedy. But then the narrative just sits there, squandering its vocal talent and spinning its wheels in different scenes that each say the same basic thing. A new challenge arises, Grug suggests something reactionary, Guy reveals a different way, and someone bangs their head on a rock. Over and over again. The inventive scenery masks that repetition for a certain period, but eventually, The Croods is forced to admit that it has nothing else in its bag of tricks.
I’m not sure the scenario ever could have been brilliant. Riffs on The Flintstones and Ice Age (among others) keep The Croods from striking its own bold path, and the assembled elements feel too routine to allow the imaginative concepts to flourish. Even so, this could have been much better than it is. A little more depth of focus, a little more character development, and 2013 would have its first real winner of an animated feature. That probably won’t hurt The Croods’ bottom line: it doesn’t face any real competition for some time, and as family entertainment goes, we’ve seen much worse. But it can’t rise to its own potential; it can’t be what it aspires to be. Its heroes don’t get off the hook for that. Why should the film surrounding them be any different?