If you follow show business, you’ve probably heard that DreamWorks Animation isn’t doing too hot. Ever since they mercifully let their not-so-jolly green giant retire, they’ve struggled to find any other banner property to prop their studio on. And last year’s Rise of the Guardians was especially disappointing at the box office. To make things worse, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s studio laid off hundreds and had to break off from long-time distributor Paramount Pictures.
All of this culminates with The Croods, which DreamWorks desperately needs to be a hit to avoid slipping further into uncertainty. But The Croods itself is somewhat of a mixed bag. If the studio was going for a Hail Mary they failed, but it’s still a passable family film that should go down as a safe play.
The Croods is the prehistoric tale of a family of Neanderthals that have survived in a scant desert the only way they know how: by hiding in the dark almost constantly. Eldest child Eep (voiced by Emma Stone) is a teenager trying to escape the protective hold her father (Nicholas Cage! As a stupid caveman!) has held his family under to keep them from being eaten by something.
But they have to come out of hiding to find food. One early sequence shows the family dashing and wheeling a vast empty landscape to steal a giant creature of Ostrich-like composure’s egg. Wild animals join in the chase for the prize and turn the hunting session into something more akin to a level of MarioKart. For these five mintues, The Croods is the best Chuck Jones wannabe cartoon we’ve seen adapted to computer animation. It’s a blast to watch, and it’s too bad the film doesn’t try to deliver more scenes in this vain.
But even beyond this scene, The Croods is blessed with ambitious art direction that feels very distinct from the herd of family-friendly computer animated titles aiming for buoyant designs bright and shiny enough to grab anyone’s attention. The creatures – or, perhaps more accurately, monsters – surrounding the Croods are both silly and grotesque, with bodies that speedily hobble about in the hunt. And the backgrounds are just as colorfully exaggerated.
The flipside of the equation is that the Croods themselves are, well, pretty crude. Big bulgy brows stick out and make the characters more grotesque than interesting. That’s also reflected in their personalities – they all begin relentlessly and stubbornly stupid, to the point that it’s hard to get on board with any of them.
The most stubborn of them all is Nicholas Cage’s patriarch, Grug, but Grug is a more interesting figure than the kiddies might understand. When his protective ways become overbearing, he resembles modern-day fathers that are abusive in several ways – not necessarily physically, but verbally or neglectfully. Whatever kind of father he best represents, it’s certainly strange to watch a cartoon about a family that is kept prisoner by its leader, and The Croods does well to touch on the issue without becoming too heavy or giving too miraculous a happy ending.
But for the gusto and flash that The Croods does showcase, it can’t coalesce into anything greater than the sum of its parts. Let’s hope that’s enough to let DreamWorks live another day.