Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Modern Stone Age Family: THE CROODS

The Croods is a basic plot told with zip, color, generous slapstick, and absolutely dazzling visuals that represent the height of modern 3D CG cartooning. Following an isolated family of cavepeople, the movie finds as its center, as so many family films do, a character who yearns for more than the simple existence she knows. In this case, the family’s father (Nicolas Cage) preaches fear, keeping the group huddled in a cave when they aren’t on a mad dash hunting and gathering for the day. The daughter (Emma Stone) is the one who wants more while her mother (Catherine Keener), brother (Clark Duke), baby sister (Randy Thom), and grandmother (Cloris Leachman) are comfortable in their routine. One night, the daughter sneaks out to go exploring. She meets a young man (Ryan Reynolds) who has strange new talents – like making fire – and appears way more homo sapien than the latter day Neanderthals she’s stuck with. He’s running one step ahead of the collapsing landscape caused by the shifting tectonic plates, but the dad refuses to listen to the interloper. Soon enough, though, the cave collapses and they need to find a new home, too.

The exceedingly simple plot finds the family (plus the new guy) walking through lush digital jungles, vast detailed plains, and swooping vistas, trying to get to a safe new place to call home to the tune of a suitably larger-than-life Alan Silvestri score. Their world is populated by creatures that have more in common with the animals of James Cameron’s Pandora than our own prehistory, but that only enhances the pleasures of the design. These aren’t modern-day behaviors placed upon a cavepeople template a la The Flinstones. Nor are they entirely without cartoonish charms. This is a nicely imagined fantasy prehistoric landscape of wild sights and goofy critters and the people we follow are likably designed as well, unconventionally shaped, squat and scrunched, perched halfway between the photorealism of wax tableaus you’d see in a natural history museum and the rounded cartoonish flesh-colored globs of the designs more typical of a Dreamworks Animation picture. They interact with their environment in fast-paced setpieces of danger and comedy, usually both at once. They tumble over waterfalls, gasp through deserts, traverse grand canyons, and make wild leaps across chasms. Along the way, they encounter ravenous piranha-birds, tenacious, stalkerish giant saber-toothed cats, goofy little crocodile dogs, packs of punching monkeys, and at least one clingy primate they call “Belt.”

It’s all so colorful and appealing, with the characters featuring fine voice acting (Cage and Stone are particularly good, able to modulate their distinctive voices in actorly ways) and appealingly broad characteristics. It’s nothing out of the ordinary – the grandma’s crotchety and snappy, the brother’s a rounded goofball – but the family has a fine dynamic that feels genuinely loving and antagonistic only in the stuck-on-a-road-trip way that develops in even the best of families during cross-country travel. That there will be valuable lessons learned about being yourself, trusting others and trying new things is, of course, inevitable. But, as written and directed by Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders, it features some of the same warmth and charm in an earnest family-centered narrative that Sanders used in his great films Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon. He’s one of the great unsung animation directors working these days and, though The Croods can’t quite match those earlier efforts in overall quality, he puts in a respectable effort in making this an enjoyable entertainment. The key is the speed, humor and beauty of it all. It may be thin and expected in many ways, but it’s gorgeous to behold – visual consultant Roger Deakins surely had something to do with the tactile sense of light playing across the vivid designs – sprinkled with good-natured laughs, and never lets up on the narrative gas pedal. 

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