I’ve always been a little frustrated by DreamWorks. Their success with cash-guzzling franchises like Shrek, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda has made them the most prolific animation studio in the world but they haven’t been able to marry quantity with quality with any consistency. It’s difficult to know, when attending one of their new films, whether to expect a How to Train Your Dragon or a Shark Tale. There’s no denying their ability to keep kids entertained but few, if any, of their films will ever be remembered in the same way as most of Pixar’s emotionally satisfying, story-led back catalogue.
So how does The Croods stack up? Somewhere in the middle, I’d say. The story about a modern pre-historic family escaping a vague idea of the end of the world finds pretty much nothing original to say, the setup, story and character relationships recalling The Land Before Time, Dinosaur and, of course, the Ice Age films, particularly Ice Age 4 with the way it trots out the very tired overprotective dad bit yet again.
Emma Stone voices Eep, a teenage cavegirl frustrated at her confinement to the safety of the family cave by the word of her paranoid father Grug (a sympathetic Nicolas Cage). Sneaking out one night she meets teenage caveboy Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who possesses the unique knowledge to make fire. When her family’s cave is destroyed by an earthquake they must follow Guy through a colourful and imaginative landscape in search of safety.
It’s a linear A to B adventure movie about breaking free of fear and embracing new ideas, which is ironic given that it has no ideas of its own but fortunately The Croods does have other things to recommend it. It’s absolutely dazzling to look at for starters, with textures, particle, lighting and water effects that confirm the studio is very much at the cutting edge of animation technology.
Also, critically, it’s quite funny; no Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs but I found there was plenty to laugh at, and I’m not just talking about that sloth in the trailer dramatically going ‘da-da-daaaaaa!’ a cheap but effective kiddie-baiting gag that’s milked for all it’s worth. The characters are all appealing, animated with amusingly exaggerated physical behaviour that paints a comical view of prehistoric people and the family dynamics invoke films like The Incredibles and My Neighbours the Yamadas.
So they’re a decent bunch to spend time with, well-voiced and well-observed and plenty of fun is had with their surroundings, particularly the outlandish fauna. There’s a menagerie of rainbow-coloured hybrid creatures such as elephant-mice, piranha-birds and land-whales and the film gets a lot of mileage from its creations. There are some inspired sight-gags to go with them, including an inspired idea for how the Croods can take a family picture. The energy of the film keeps it constantly watchable but all its good points don’t hide how unambitious it is narratively. The Croods gets a recommendation, it will entertain kids effortlessly and it will probably get a sequel, just don’t expect a classic.
The number of other films I’ve referred to in this review should indicate how derivative The Croods is. As lacking as the story is it gets nearly everything else right. There’s just enough comedy, heart and visual invention to make it worthwhile.