DreamWorks Animation, often the poor stepbrother to Pixar, has had a pretty good run over the past two years with “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” and “Rise of the Guardians.” That trend continues with The Croods, a wild, colorful tale about the end of the Neanderthals, continental drift, plate tectonics and the never ending war between daddies and daughters.
And while the tale (written and directed by Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders, “Lilo & Stitch,” “How to Train Your Dragon“) of a cave family on the run from the dangers that surround them may be extremely clichéd and formulaic — and borrows heavily from Fox’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” as well as “Ice Age: Continental Drift” with even a little of “The Flintstones” thrown in — there is a certain charm in its simplicity and often frantic storytelling.
The script is also saved by wild, vibrant animation. The grays of the cave environment are juxtaposed with a crazed world of brightly-hued giant flowers, fiery volcanic skies, vast azure oceans, terrifying pitch-black tar pits, star-filled heavens and bizarre animals — including a lizard/dog-like creature, two varmints that share one tail, large horned birds, a big-eyed blue lemur (that shouts, “Ta-Da!” at appropriate moments) and a giant sabertooth/kitty cat.
Add to this the voice characterizations, as well as the fun trying to guess those responsible, such as Academy Award winners Nicolas Cage (“Leaving Las Vegas“) and Cloris Leachman (“The Last Picture Show“), Oscar nominee Catherine Keener (“Being John Malkovich,” “Capote“) and young Hollywood’s Emma Stone (“The Amazing Spider-Man“) and Ryan Reynolds (“The Green Lantern“).
The plot has overprotective dad, Grug Crood (Cage), hiding his family in a cave 90 percent of the time, exiting only to find food. There’s a reason behind this, however, since all the other families in the “neighborhood” have either been smashed or eaten or infected in some way or another. Mom (Keener), dim bulb son, Thunk (Clark Duke, “Sex Drive”), Gran (Leachman) and Baby Sandy go along with this limited lifestyle (even sleeping together in a big ball), but rebellious teen Eep (Stone) doesn’t just want to stay alive, she wants to live.
Yes, there are dangers aplenty lurking in this in-between world of abject horror and wacky fantasy of The Croods, but when Eep meets Guy (Reynolds), a more advanced humanoid who gets ideas, wears a lemur for a belt and is always trying to follow the sun, she is smitten. When earthquakes ravish the Croods’ home, the clan is forced to follow Guy on his strange quest to find the perfect place to life. This leads to a most incredible journey filled with frenetic chases, narrow escapes and a burgeoning love between the two young leads. An increasingly irrelevant dad, of course, does everything he can to break up this budding romance, leaving the audience wondering not only will the group survive, but what will become of the star-crossed lovers.
It’s a legitimate question too, since by the end, we really do care about this family, despite their goofy encounters and weird situations. And even though the movie feels longer than its short 98-minute running time (children at the screening I attended began to become a little restless before the conclusion), The Croods is the first family flick of the year to check out.