It’s been fifteen years since DreamWorks Animation fired its first salvo across the bow of Pixar, releasing Antz two months before Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. Over the years, with the occasional Aardman-produced exception, DreamWorks seemed content to play the family refrigerator to Pixar’s Louvre, happily letting Pixar get the accolades while they raked in the cash from a seemingly endless stream of Shrek and Madagascar sequels. Things started turning around a bit with Monsters vs. Aliens, Kung Fu Panda continued the progression, How to Train Your Dragon was downright Pixar good (and for my money, better than Pixar’s offering from the same year, Toy Story 3), and Rise of the Guardians has slowly been overcoming my initial dissatisfaction with it. Combined with the impression that Pixar seems to be coming back to the pack a little, what with its obsession over Cars sequels, DreamWorks is finally in a fair fight. It’s latest film, The Croods, may not reach the heights of How to Train Your Dragon, but it’s definitely reaching for them. It’s refreshingly free of DreamWorks patented pop culture snark, and does a better job handling some of the same themes Pixar’s Brave dealt with last year.
Both films deal with a young heroine straining against the strictures of how things have always been done, but whereas it’s Brave‘s mother who’s initially the rigid traditionalist, here it’s the father, Grug, voiced by Nicolas Cage. The world outside the Croods’ cave is something to be feared, ventured into only when absolutely necessary, then to be retreated from as quickly as possible. It’s a tough love approach that rankles Grug’s daughter Eep (Emma Stone). She wants to see what’s out there in the night beyond the rock her father pulls over the entrance to their cave, and it’s her desire to have a life that consists of more than simply staying alive that eventually puts the film’s story into motion. And that story proceeds much more elegantly than the rather convoluted lengths Brave goes to in order to reconcile mother and daughter. Here, it’s essentially a quest, with the family joining up with the more evolved Guy (Ryan Reynolds) to escape the cataclysm accompanying the great continent Pangaea splitting up. Along the way, Grug’s brawn and Guy’s brain initially clash, then prove equally important to everyone’s survival, while father and daughter are finally able to say how much they mean to each other.
It’s not a story that’s exactly re-inventing the wheel, or maybe inventing it in this case, but The Croods is less about breaking new narrative ground and more about treading familiar ground in as creative and fun a way as possible. Co-director Chris Sanders blends the anarchic spirit of his Lilo and Stitch with the heart of his How to Train Your Dragon into a film that’s funny and sweet in all the right places. His visual style is all over the film — you can see echoes of Stitch and Toothless in plenty of the bizarre prehistoric animals that populate the Croods’ world — and he’s once again employed legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins as a visual consultant. The result is a film that’s brimming with memorable images and spectacular scenery. As sheer eye candy it’s a treat, especially with the very sharp 3D presentation it was shown in at the screening I saw.
I wouldn’t have liked it as much as I did though if the film had just been a demo reel for Sanders’ talent for character design and shot composition. We get to know the family in a fairly witty prologue (one with the fingerprints of original story consultant John Cleese all over it) and a breakneck opening hunting sequence that does a nice of job of sketching each of the characters. Cage is particularly good as the father trying to do his best in the face of a changing world that seems to be passing him by, and Stone and Reynolds have a charming chemistry in their scenes together. Some of the film’s best moments come when it slows down to allow us to experience the awe and wonder the Croods feel when they realize just how much bigger their world is than they thought. One scene spent atop a tree marveling at the stars is particularly memorable, and the vast array of imaginative evolutionary off-shoots the family encounters offer plenty of fun.
If there’s a disappointment, it’s when the film seems ready to reach for real resonance, then steps back from it. It involves the fate of one of the main characters, a moment of sacrifice that feels genuine and earned and truly poignant. But, in the finest Disney tradition, reports of this character’s death are greatly exaggerated. That they’ve become so darn likeable by this point softens the blow a bit — I was genuinely glad to see them come back — but the film could have added some real depth by forcing the rest of the characters to deal with this absence, and the reason it happened.
But I can’t blame what’s essentially a light-hearted feel-good romp for not wanting to venture into such dark territory. If it doesn’t have the lift of How to Train Your Dragon or the emotional heft of Pixar’s masterpieces, The Croods is still a bright, inventive, completely winning piece of entertainment. From the studio that once was happy to trot out Shark Tales and Bee Movies as long as the money kept rolling in, it’s definitely a step up the evolutionary ladder.