Nicolas Cage and Emma Stone head the voice cast of Dreamworks' latest animated odyssey, following the world's last surviving family of Neanderthals as they venture forth into an untamed and unexplored prehistoric world. Gorgeous visuals, frantic pacing and a consistently funny script help this otherwise generic family adventure tip the balance in its favour.
Originally conceived by Aardman Animation as part of their five-picture deal with Dreamworks, The Croods - or Crood Awakening as it was originally titled - was first penned by Monty Python alumnus John Cleese, together with Space Chimps helmer Kirk De Micco. When Aardman and Dreamworks parted company, the latter kept the rights and Lilo & Stitch director Chris Sanders came on board as director, only for him to then put the project on hold while he worked on 2010's excellent How to Train Your Dragon. Finally, however, after nearly a decade in development, The Croods has arrived, and it proves to be mostly entertaining stuff.
The plot is simple enough. The prehistoric age is dawning - a dangerous time for cavemen like the Croods. As neighbouring cave-dwellers are systematically wiped out by larger carnivores, disease and the elements, patriarch Grug (Nicolas Cage) becomes understandably protective of his family. However, this doesn't sit well with his hormonal teenage daughter, Eep (Emma Stone), who doesn't want to be cooped up in a cave with her simple-minded brother, bitey baby sister or indomitable grandmother. She wants her space, her freedom - a dream epitomized by the blazing sun.
So when Eep encounters the mysterious young lad, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who wields fire and speaks of the End of the World, she is instantly smitten and would willingly follow him anywhere. Only when an earthquake destroys the family cave, however, is Grug and the rest of the family convinced to follow him over the mountain and into a strange new world, populated by weird and wonderful creatures, that will put the Croods' resolve as a family unit to the test.
The creature design in the film is uniformly excellent. In a world that represents a melting pot of evolution that has yet to settle on any particular design, the Croods discover a menagerie of bizarre hybrids - from miniature elephant mice to carnivorous piranha parrots, and most memorably a giant sabre-toothed kitten. Even our "human" heroes range from Homo Erectus Guy, who stands, walks and talks like a man from the Modern Age, to Grug's knuckle-dragging, mono-browed Neanderthal. Granny, who has seemingly lived through a millennium or two, still has a reptilian tail!
Every surface of the film, be it sand, fur or water, is beautifully rendered, the varied colour palette brings a vibrancy to the imagery, while the "cinematography" captures some spectacular vistas and numerous swooping aerial shots during the film's many running, hunting and chasing sequences. In large part, the success of the film's overall look can be credited to perennial Oscar-nominee Roger Deakins, who is again recruited as Visual Consultant here, as he was in How to Train Your Dragon, Rango and Wall-E.
But beyond all this, The Croods is also very funny. John Cleese can take some of the credit here. It is unclear exactly how much of his original drafts remain, but some of the jokes are so dark that one can't help but feel he was somehow involved. As one might expect, the script contains a healthy dose of slapstick (rocks do indeed fall on heads), there are anachronistic gags referencing modern times, but also numerous references to death (of both human characters and animals) that tickle a far more twisted, adult funny bone.
The voice cast does solid, if undemanding work - Cage, Stone and Reynolds, along with Catherine Keener, Clark Duke and Cloris Leachman are all essentially using their own voices. At its heart, The Croods is a simply story of changing family dynamics, cutting the apron strings and having the courage to face new challenges. It is occasionally paced unevenly, most likely the result of numerous rewrites over the years, and never even remotely subtle, but nevertheless makes good use of the talent at its disposal.
The result is a gorgeously realized piece of animation, backed up by a smart, occasionally subversive sense of humour. The film clearly has intelligence and ambition, which sets it apart from the similarly themed Ice Age films, which stopped evolving long ago. It may not be a classic, but The Croods has already shown its ability to survive by the very fact that it exists at all. Now that it has been unleashed into the wild it faces a greater challenge, but one I'd recommended experiencing for yourselves.