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.
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