Family Friendly "The Croods" Mostly Rocks

In the world of animation, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of voice acting. Lamentably, most studios have made a habit of hiring names rather than talent. Stars are bankable, but most of them aren’t very good voice actors and most of the target audience (children) couldn’t care less who voices Buzz Lightyear, Lightning McQueen, or Shrek. The names of Tim Allen, Owen Wilson, and Mike Myers mean absolutely nothing to the average 7 year-old, but the ability of a voice actor to bring their character to life means everything. If an actor is bored in the recording booth, the audience can tell, be it consciously or subconsciously. In that case, the character – and potentially, the film – is sunk. Animators and writers can only do so much.

While “The Croods” doesn’t buck convention with its cast, it does make the best of the situation, casting its two leads brilliantly. Nicolas Cage and Emma Stone have tremendously distinct voices and they have no trouble shouldering the heart of the narrative. When the animation, screenplay, and voice acting are firing on all cylinders, “The Croods” is a treat to watch, which is the case more often than not.

Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders co-wrote (with assistance from the one and only John Cleese) and co-directed the picture, allowing for a smooth transition from page to screen. The film follows the story of a dysfunctional prehistoric family facing the dangers of an unknown world. Cage stars as Grug, a classically overprotective father, while Catherine Keener voices his wife, Ugga. Emma Stone plays the oldest of their three children, Eep, while Clark Duke voices their son, Thunk. Cloris Leachman is also on hand as their cranky grandmother, Gran.

When the endlessly inquisitive Eep ventures away from the family’s cave against her father’s wishes, she encounters a charming loner named Guy (Ryan Reynolds). Her family quickly sets out to find her, soon encountering a vast array of wildlife – some life threatening, some inimitably adorable. A baby sloth that the family calls Belt is particularly endearing, and should delight younger audiences. But the film’s charms aren’t limited to one particular demo.

Soon, the story moves from a very ordinary desert-like setting to a colorful world of exotic plants and animals. The 3D is surprisingly effective, going beyond the typical pop-up-book look of most modern day 3D films. The second act is light on plot, but the aforementioned heart of the story begins to take hold near the hour mark. The troubled relationship between Eep and her father is drawn remarkably well, and like Pixar’s “Brave,” the film is ultimately about a parent and child learning to communicate. What “The Croods” does better than “Brave” is relaying that message in more relatable terms, rather than relying on a fairy tale to complete the analogy.

As strong as Cage and Stone are – and Keener and Duke to a lesser degree – Ryan Reynolds is out of his element and his character is woefully underdeveloped. Guy is a half-baked love interest for Eep, and an even less concise catalyst for the story. It’s understandable that the filmmakers felt the need to include a romantic angle, but it comes across as a third tier love story, even by animation standards. Even so, the other characters are strong enough that the picture’s ultimate success or failure never rests on Guy’s shoulders.

“The Croods” survives an unsteady second act thanks to a sturdy beginning (including a lovely introductory sequence) and an even sturdier conclusion. When so many animated films settle for noise over substance, it’s refreshing to see a film go for both and achieve success on multiple levels. The beauty of the animation only underscores the rock solid story, and the strongest of the visuals are among the best I’ve ever seen in an animated film. The ads have tried to sell the picture on its unconventional character designs (which might be unappealing out of context) and obnoxious catchphrases, which are few and far between. “The Croods” deserves much better than its weak ad campaign, as it has plenty to offer moviegoers of all ages. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: March 22, 2013
Studio: DreamWorks Animation
Director: Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco
Screenwriter: Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco, John Cleese
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman
MPAA Rating: PG (for some scary action)