Since Dreamworks animation was taken over by Fox, they announced a big and exciting slate that was a mixture of sequels to good films and interesting sounding new material. The quality of Rise of The Guardians and Madagascar 3, following in the footsteps of How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda 2 led some animation fans, this one included, to hope for Pixar levels of creativity and consistency. The Croods, the first film to be released under the new partnership, arrived with a certain level of expectation; could this be the start of a new era for Dreamworks? Well, if it is, it’s a slow, unremarkable one.
The Croods are one of the last surviving cavemen families, living in fear and believing that this fear keeps them alive. One day their cave is destroyed, and they have to explore the outside world to try and find another cave. Young, progressive Homo Sapiens Guy (Ryan Reynolds) manages to persuade the Neanderthals to move to higher ground, to avoid the impending tectonic shifts that will change the face of the world forever. Grug (Nicholas Cage) doesn’t trust Guy or, indeed, anything. His daughter Eep (Emma Stone), however, embraces the chance for adventure and spending time with Guy. What follows is yet another film about male insecurity, framed in a beautifully animated world with hybrid animals and colourful alien landscapes.
The problem, as several critics have already observed, is one of comparison. The prehistorically inaccurate setting is trying desperately not to be Ice Age, whilst the plot follows an arc ripped straight from How To Train Your Dragon. The driving relationship of the plot is, once more, a father and their child struggling to understand each other, and the final scene feels awfully familiar. There’s a sense that we’ve seen it all before, a feeling exacerbated by the uninspired voice work. A brick-subtle script that heavily signposts major themes makes it difficult to care about yet another family that have to learn to work together; Dragons and The Incredibles did the same thing a lot better. There’s no big emotional or transcendent moment here, it’s far more pedestrian than that.
The character animation is, quite frankly, awful. The blank eyes and textureless skin feel like a Saturday morning cartoon or a Playstation 2 game. Compare a character like Guy to Brave’s Merida, or even North from Rise of the Guardians, and The Croods is undeniably lacking. In a film from a studio this rich and talented, such ugliness in character design is incredibly disappointing, but also baffling.
And yet The Croods still manages to be a thoroughly entertaining adventure, packed with thankfully pop-culture-free laughs. Some of the jokes are undeniably naff – the irritating, kid-friendly sloth is the worst culprit here – but for every dud there are a couple of big hits. In abandoning any kind of realism, the film makers have clearly had a lot of fun in playing around with stereotypical ideas about cavemen, mining laughs from the invention of shoes, prehistoric photography and the dangers of tectonic plates. The family’s attempts at surviving and inventing things in a hostile world are consistently funny, and children will certainly find lots to enjoy.
The film’s biggest appeal, however, is the world it is set in. This is not earth as we know it, and The Croods features some of the best, most outrageous landscape and creature design that animation has to offer. Turtle birds, flying piranha and multicoloured, misshapen tigers are just some of the bizarre, brilliant animals that inhabit the jungles and deserts they explore. My personal favourite are Siamese lemurs, joined at the tail – what possible evolutionary advantage could that offer? The landscapes are equally fun, bright, colourful and totally rejecting realism to surprise the audience with each new terrain they cross. When the family split up to work their way through a maze of rocks in the film’s most beautiful sequence, The Croods shows its potential, frustrating us with a glimpse of what it could have been.
There’s lots to enjoy about to enjoy about The Croods, but it’s a shame that in a world this inventively created, the story couldn’t have been just a little bit bolder.