Fans of the Ice Age movies will experience prehistoric déjà vu with the latest DreamWorks animated film, The Croods, the tale of a Stone Age family on a road trip from their geologically precarious cave home to a safer territory.
With colourful, textured 3-D landscapes, initially reminiscent of the American Southwest of John Ford or Wile E. Coyote, and later the rain-forest lushness of Avatar and FernGully, there’s lots to catch the eye. But even the lively visuals and unrelenting thrill-ride pace can’t disguise rough-hewn storytelling, or the fact that the tale of a old-fashioned macho cave dad and his family seems a bit yabba-dabba done that already.
Originally announced in 2005, under the title Crood Awakening, the movie was intended to be a collaboration between DreamWorks and Britain’s Aardman Animations (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run), although the only relic of that is a story co-credit to John Cleese and a vestigial tale of our species’ evolution from risk-adverse beginnings to becoming more adventurous creatures. All of this is encapsulated in the story of a teenaged cave girl, Eep (Emma Stone), and her quest for freedom.
Under the watchful eye of slope-headed father Grug (Nicolas Cage), whose motto is “never not be afraid,” Eep and her family have survived when most of their neighbours have died off from various natural disasters and illnesses. The price for survival has meant spending a lot of time in their dark cave with a boulder rolled up to the opening, so Eep, who has a Cabbage Patch Kids doll face and stocky Amazonian curves that fill out her animal skin, takes every opportunity to sunbathe and venture outside their home canyon.
Other Croods include the mother, Ugga (a wasted Catherine Keener), and a thick-skulled nine-year-old boy, Thunk (Clark Duke), both of whom unquestioningly go along with dad’s program. The family wild cards are mother-in-law Gran (Cloris Leachman), whose character is the object of antediluvian mother-in-law jokes. Best, perhaps, is the baby, Sandy (Randy Thom), a fierce, scuttling, evolutionary throwback who proves useful when the family hunts as a pack, when dad declares: “Release the baby!”, which could become a household catchphrase.
Why this family fare focuses on teen romance isn’t clear, although Eep is clearly an ancestor of a long line of oppressed female protagonists from The Little Mermaid through to last year’s Brave and Hotel Transylvania. Will a slacker Stone Age young dude arrive and win her heart? Of course, he will, complete with a skate-boarder bangs and a chiselled abs and the easy-to-remember name Guy (Ryan Reynolds).
Guy introduces Eep and her family to some way-out ideas, like fire and shoes. He also wears some sort of lemur thing around his waist called Belt (Chris Sanders), which might as well be called “requisite cute sidekick animal.” But his apparent laid-back style disguises a different kind of worrier. A bit of a pre-Old Testament prophet, he warns the Croods that the world they know is about to end, through some major seismic activity.
The Croods are obliged to head out to safer place along with Guy, though the reluctant Grug continues to be dubious and jealous of the interloper, until, predictably, he starts to wise up. With new dangers introduced almost by the minute, the narrative is busy to the point of incoherence, with an occasional clever action sequence.
An initially amusing but quickly tiring trick involves various mix-and-match animal inventions, including “piranha birds”, “bear owls” and a pet “dog-crocodile”, which reinforce the notion that The Croods is really little more than an Ice Age/Flintstones hybrid. While paying lip service to the spirit of invention and adventure, the movie doesn’t do much for the evolution of children’s animated entertainment.