It's hard to believe that we're entering an era where people may be able to hum the tune to The Flintstones but not know little else about the show. As time goes on it will more likely be regarded as a historical artifact and little else since it was never very funny, and ran on the same few jokes. History still has a way of making its presence felt, and The Croods is nothing if an assemblage of what came before it. It's a lively retread of many films and shows, but takes the repetitive tone of The Flintstones as a comedic template instead of doing something else.
The Croods is a callback to the darker times for Dreamworks, minus the forced pop culture humor. The plot is based around a simple conflict between father and daughter, and never stretches for a deeper moral than, "It's good to have family." Simplicity in plotting isn't automatically a negative, all I need to do is go back to earlier this year and recall the plot of Epic to find a story as straightforward. But Epic delighted in its animated form, splitting the tiny world into a prism of textures and settings. The Croods has but two modes, grey and rainbow.
My disappointment in the limited imagination of this world started very early. The opening credit sequence is a beauty, giving the screen the scratchy feel of sketchbook paper as the animation telling the story of the Crood family sprang out colors that seemed shaded by pencils and crayons. If I was unaware that this was a CGI Dreamworks film I would have been crushed by the crude transition to the greatly detailed but overwhelming bland surroundings that bleed into the film after the transition.
Through one quick montage of rapid jump-cuts we see the Crood family, led by papa Grug (Nicolas Cage), on their morning hunt for some food. Watch as the drab surroundings whiz by the family when they race for their hunting grounds. The visuals are the same collection of rocky outcroppings and dusty horizons as far as the eye can see. When the family starts to move through this bright desert they do so with the speed and grace of superheroes. The dizzying effect of their acrobatics wears off quickly as we come to the dim realization that the animators are playing with a limited bag of tricks.
I've always been excited to see flight in animation as it's the best medium to express that freedom of movement. But when everyone in the family shares the same talents, even the grandmother, then we just have their costumes and stock family positions to fall back on. I did like that our heroine, Eep (Emma Stone), clad in a dress that recalls Fred Flintstone's orange ensemble, defied the teenage daughter stereotype to a degree as she is the toughest and smartest of the Croods. But I was disappointed to see some of that same determination turn to mush in the face of a cute boy with a floppy hairdo.
When the boy, named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), appears it signals the shift of setting from the drabness of the Crood's cave and into a lush forest. I thought that it would also be the time to transition to a new art style, one that would finally bring this family to life. While there is certainly a greater array of colors, I hesitate to say that any of them really breathe a fresh atmosphere into the movie.
Almost all the animals they encounter are a variation of the same basic color scheme. There are a lot of greens and blues mixed in with these breeds that seem to have been picked at random from an animal glossary. One is a turtle crossed with a toucan that cries like a fox but with wings shaped like a moth that blends in almost completely into the environment as it is just as moss-like as everything else. This amalgamation comes after some monkeys that are in the same shade, a mouse / elephant that is much the same, and many other creatures that do not pop out of the environment in any meaningful way. The look persists through the rest of the film, and gets tiresome very quickly.
I could have overlooked the stagnant animation if the film was funny, but I admit that I am not the target audience for jokes about Grug's mother-in-law. But even if I'm not the target, I wish that the writers could have let go of the trope for just a bit to try something else. The one scene of the movie that shows promise, Grug's parade of silly inventions, is over before it has the traction to get a good punchline in. Then there's the problem with the slapstick, where I lost count with how many times the Croods fell from a high point to crash into the ground and have Grug make sure they're all still alive (I stopped at five).
All this doesn't make The Croods a bad movie exactly, just a disappointing one. Its lively and the while the environments may get boring the plot zips along at a carefree clip. But Dreamworks has shown that it is capable of delivering films that are funny, touching, and inventive. This film may hold someone's attention, but should only linger long enough to spark an interest in what animation can really accomplish.
Screenplay written and directed by Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders.
Starring Emma Stone, Nicolas Cage, and Ryan Reynolds.