It’s typically not a good thing when your target audience is smarter than your main characters. That is unfortunately the case for The Croods (2013), an animated movie about cave people who learn how to live and not merely survive. Its message is that curiosity, though potentially dangerous, is better than, you know, living in a cave. It puts that message across fairly quickly, but then it allows plenty of time for its main characters, and some of the dimmer children in the audience, to figure it out. Brighter viewers are in danger of getting bored.
The titular Crood clan consists of father Grug (voice of Nicolas Cage), mother Ugga (Catherine Keener) and their daughter Eep (Emma Stone) and son Thunk (Clark Duke). There’s also a baby who has yet to earn a grunt of a name and is treated mainly as an attack dog, and there are two instances, while hunting, when Grug orders,“Release the baby!” and the child scurries after its prey in a flurry. Lastly, there’s Gran (Cloris Leachman), Grug’s mother-in-law, who somehow got by with an actual descriptive name and not a clunky nonsense noise. Grug, the patriarch, is fiercely protective of his family and keenly aware that humans, without intelligence, are fairly disadvantaged when it comes to wilderness survival. He strictly enforces a pitiful existence in which the family lives in a dark cave and emerges when the food runs out and even then stays outside long enough only to find something to eat, raw eggs mainly. There is no leaving the cave alone, no leaving the cave at night, no questions or curiosity of any kind. In a voice–over Eep tells us, according to Grug, “Basically, everything fun is bad.” While it is fascinating to see a primitive world–view that would eventually evolve into Catholicism, it makes for too restrictive a lifestyle for the naturally inquisitive Eep who feels that living this way is hardly preferable to the alternative.
That hunch is fostered when she discovers Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a more advanced breed of human who wears pants instead of loincloths (his britches look curiously like jeans—I’d like to know what they are made out of. I do, however, know the make–up of his belt, which is not a belt at all but a sloth-like creature he calls Belt that hugs his waist all day). Guy has also discovered fire and is aware that the continents are separating and is searching for higher ground. His roguish embrace of knowledge (and his cool jeans) draws Eep to him and soon, thanks to the continental divide, the Croods are forced out of their cave and into a brave new world with Guy as their guide.
Actually, he’s not really their guide; he’s more of a captive. Grug is preternaturally distrustful of pretty much anything, especially Guy, whom, as Zues did, Grug believes has caused all these terrifying Promethean changes, and he uses his strength to capture Guy and force him to lead them to safety. The rest of the family goes along with this, including the lovestruck Eep, and somehow a Stockholm syndrome-like romance blossoms. Considering that Eep and Guy and the only non-incestuous male-female couple in the entire world, perhaps this is to be expected. Guy, who can teach the tentative family about the joys of swimming and basking in the sun, wins them over from the hard-line Grug, not a difficult task considering Grug’s motto is “Always be afraid.”
I enjoyed the fauna of this world, which includes strange and colorful combinations of animals that are something like ancient Greek aberrations. There was a bird with a shell like a tortoise, a mouse with the tusks and ears of an elephant, and ostriches with alligator heads. These animals found themselves put to good use in a number of thrilling, if pointless and repetitive, action sequences in a number of exotic and beautiful locales, but the movie falls into the same trap that ensnares many DreamWorks Animation entries: all its creativity is put into the way it looks and the story is routine or dead on arrival. Somehow Pixar is able to by-and-large avoid this malaise and give us movies that dazzle our eyes and our hearts and minds, but DreamWorks has achieved this only once or twice, and The Croods isn’t one of them.
I don’t believe that just because a movie is animated means it can’t be complex or bring up difficult subjects. There is more moral ambiguity in Pinocchio (1940) or philosophical dilemmas in the Toy Story series than there is in DreamWorks Animation’s entire output. That The Croods has a simple message is not the problem—simplicity can be quite powerful—the problem is that it arrives at its message nearly at the beginning and from there we are simply watching a colorful rendition of a dim person figuring out a simple problem. It might not be frustrating to a child in the audience the way it is for an adult, but it won’t make a lasting impression that’s for sure. The Croods has an inventive look that takes risks and pays off; its story is stuck in a cave.