A very brief and somewhat biased history lesson: Dreamworks Animation, after years of foisting smarmy talking animals, questionable pop songs and a litany of fart jokes on indiscriminate family audiences, released How To Train Your Dragon. It was a film with no small amount of ambition in terms of visual aesthetics and had an abundance of heart. Usually, Dreamworks Animation sits in the long shadow of Pixar, who around that time were putting out Cars 2, so it was a bit of a topsyturvy world which lasted only the briefest of moments as Pixar quickly recovered with their third quality Toy Story movie and Dreamworks numbly churned out Madagascar and Shrek sequels. All this is to say that when Dragon co-director Chris Sanders was the man put in charge of Dreamwork’s latest feature, The Croods, and Monsters University seems lazy as all hell, 2013 promised similar downside-up deja vu.
After watching The Croods die a slow death-by-committee, I feel that perhaps the original story of a fearful and conservative prehistoric family forced to find a new home in an unforgiving world outside their comfort zone, would represent some risk-taking in the narrative department. The film skims some pretty controversial themes for a kids flick in this particular young century. The first is the cave clan’s ongoing over-reaction (espoused in a myth-making Chauvet-esque prologue), ) to the demise of their immediate neighbours; a healthy concern for survival that edges into fear, uncertainty and doubt. The world is a dangerous place for those of the cro-magnon variety. Exchanging comfort and freedom and a zest for living for security, painting the crudes, excuse me, Croods as a bunch of xenophobic ugly Americans as their 9/11 event fast approaches. The event, here geological, in some way echoes Star Trek II‘s ‘Genesis Project’ and for a time, it feels like the film is going to espouse some old fashioned Roddenberry logic, that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Couple this with the idea that one generation often has to make big sacrifices for the benefit of prosperity of the next, and the ongoing baby-boomer disaster that is the current world-wide economic meltdown, and you’ve got some heady subtext for a brightly animated Quest For Fire riff. Indeed, the film struggles with the generational gap between wide-eyed optimism of youth and pragmatic caution of folks who have witnessed a fairer share of death and loss; that is to say there is a smidgen of the anxious dad of Finding Nemo (and possibly the only time ever you will be able to compare Albert Brooks to Nicholas Cage.) Even further, it throws out the can-do spirit of the use of new and untested technology (fire and, oddly, shoes), as a way of advancing into the darkness with the risk of torching oneself in the tall dry grass; this instead of the conservative, tried-and-true idealogy – hiding in the dark and waiting for the danger to pass. The film piles all these things on its plate with an ambitious, almost effortless, glee, then takes the safe, conservative, non-confrontational approach to the whole darn thing. The Croods may say one thing, but it wants to keep hiding in its safe market-tested cave. Damn you Dreamworks.
Let us first start with the metrosexual cave dude. No, let us start with Emma Stone, Eep. The film opens with her red-headed, highly competent, rather fearless teenage girl, being held back by tradition. So far so Brave. One night she ventures out and has a chance encounter with Ryan Reynold’s less-slopey-headed-than-dad hunk, named Guy, who wows her fire, but warns of a coming apocalypse. When the family stronghold is shaken into rubble the next day, The Croods are homeless and rudderless in a wider-world for which they are, supposedly, ill equipped to survive. I didn’t want necessarily want The Road from this film, but The Croods takes everything it has told you about the dangers in the world up to this point and disproves it all by showing the family never actually get hurt from anything. Even grandma survives lengthy sprints and massive falls without a scrape as the collective family bumbles their way through predators, inhospitable landscapes (with no food) to survive handily even without any real co-operation inside the family unit. There is even a just plain thread where Dad (Nicholas Cage at his most restrained) wants to send his mother-in-law (Cloris Leechman) out to certain death. Why? For cheap yuks? That shit stopped being funny a century ago. Besides, Grandma’s as nimble and contributing as much as anyone else. There is no conflict of any kind with the milquetoast wife (a muted out of existence Catherine Keener) After committing a myriad of tell-one-thing then show-another sins, the film is content to all but completely drop Eep’s character arc in favour of the men (oh yea, the metrosexual Guy) and their differing modes of assuring the woman and children’s survival. It asks you to believe and care, when the picture has little interest in being consistent in its own internal logic.
One bright light here is Roger Deakins, acting as cinematography consultant (as he did in Dragon) he elevates the hell out of the film by giving it a richly textured and highly varied world. During the daytime sparsity of the Crood’s desert-like neighborhood, there is a hunter-seeker anxious camerawork reminiscent of the space-exteriors of Battlestar Galactica. Even as it is offset by the goofiness of a triathlon/football egg hunting setpiece of noisy spectacle in the early going. At night, the Avatarish chemo-luminescence of Paleolithic plant life is nicely complemented with the warm glow of torchlight. It is as pretty as anything I have seen in a CGI movie and proof that there are still improvements going on at the aesthetic front of these things, even if the storytelling is stagnant. Alan Silvestri’s score sounds like he is just ripping off the music from the New Line Cinema and Disney studio logos. The Croods is manically schizophrenic in what it does well, and what it does horrible. Points for the character of Eep for possessing a decidedly non-princess, broad-shouldered, body type and athletic competence (albeit the camera often seems linger on her leopard-print underwear and exposed skin.) Taking the story away from her and injecting all these wink-wink modern dialogue and chickening out when it comes to the films chief emotional climax makes this picture nothing but a heaping pile of Barney Rubble. Where is the Great Gazoo when you need him?