“Crude” is a half-appropriate description of DreamWorks Animation’s The Croods. The word couldn’t apply less to the gorgeous animation, which not only paints a broad, beautiful canvas for the setting, but also revels in meticulous detail. But the film’s sense of humor and thinly-drawn characters are rarely worthy of their magnificent surroundings. Although the film doesn’t resort to fart humor (which DreamWorks Animation has never been hesitant to employ), it’s mostly slapstick that renders the characters’ need to survive less than compelling when they can be tossed 80 feet in the air and land with nary a scratch. The story may preach about looking to tomorrow, but the tired story and themes are rooted firmly in the past.
Grug (Nicolas Cage) has made sure his cave-family is afraid of everything because it’s the only way to ensure their survival. However, his daughter Eep (Emma Stone) is adventurous, and one night she ventures outside the cave to follow a light. She discovers the light is fire, and the one who controls it is the handsome, more evolved Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who warns her that end of the world is coming. When an earthquake destroys the Croods’ cave, they have no choice but to follow Guy to safety. Grug, who has always been able to rely on his strength to protect his family, becomes increasingly jealous of Guy as his intelligence and ideas lead the Croods towards a new future.
The Croods is one of those family films that can easily be written off as something for kids where the lessons will feel new, and they’re nice lessons. They teach kids not to be afraid, being smart and coming up with ideas is good, and that tomorrow is a new day (it’s very tough to get kids to sit through Gone with the Wind to get that last message). But lessons aren’t emotions, and the conflicts in The Croods feel tired and calculated. Again, for younger audience members, this will feel fresh, but it’s the kind of mediocrity for which DreamWorks Animation has become notorious.
The willingness to take risks and still come out ahead was one of the reasons Pixar was so celebrated up until the last couple of years. This daring was further highlighted by the timidity of the other animation studios. DreamWorks Animation’s mission statement is to crank out more animated films, but not necessarily better ones. The Croods is product, and it may sell some toys, but I doubt it will have much of a lasting impact on the kids who might find it appealing. It’s a movie that’s more reliant on celebrity voices than the characters those celebrities are voicing.
Celebrity voices aren’t inherently bad, but animation can still suffer from miscasting. Stone and Reynolds are fine, but the design of Grug doesn’t match Cage’s unmistakable voice. It creates a dissonance that highlights how DreamWorks Animation is selling the product with celebrities rather than trying to find the right voice for the character. The only moment where Cage’s voice work becomes worthwhile is when he finds a completely unexpected way to shout “He’s loose!” It still doesn’t work, but at least it’s entertaining.
Without memorable characters and humor that rarely ventures beyond tossing around the characters like rag dolls, The Croods‘ greatest strength is the animation. Granted, at a studio as powerful as DreamWorks Animation, the animation should be nothing less than spectacular, but they keep finding new ways to raise the bar. The production design is lush and vibrant, but where the animation really shines is in putting dust and debris on the faces of the characters, and other minor details that help us buy into the larger aspects of the world.
The Croods feels like a visually stunning adaptation of a forgettable newspaper comic strip that never existed (perhaps it’s a close relative of B.C.). It’s something you flip past because the characters are flat and the format has become undemanding. There are punchlines and cute moments, but it’s not intended to be memorable. It’s filler, and The Croods will fill the Saturday afternoon of a family with small children. But the studio’s storytelling has become beyond tired, and although The Croods has a lesson about the importance of taking chances, Grug’s motto at the opening of the film, “New is bad”, might be hanging in the offices of DreamWorks Animation.