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'The Croods' is sweet, but lacks wit and robust plot

DreamWorks

REVIEW -- Two of the principal plot drivers in "The Croods" are an athletic Neanderthal chick with a wild titian mop top and a rockin’ bod packed into a tiger-fur sheath and a brainy boy babe with skater-dude hair, perfect pecs and the waistline of a supermodel, not to mention a pioneering flair for accessories. But the core audience for DreamWorks’ 3D animated prehistoric family adventure is probably less the tweens and teens those adolescent lovebirds would suggest than the younger tykes who flocked to a comedy franchise situated elsewhere on the paleontology chart, "Ice Age."

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The humor and charm in Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco’s film is too uneven to help it approach that series' mammoth market share. But its mostly fast-moving roller coaster of kinetic action and its menagerie of fantastic creatures – from cute to menacing – should keep kids entertained. They’ll also have no trouble grasping the simple message to face your fears and embrace change.

The film evolved out of a project first announced at Cannes in 2005 under the title "Crood Awakening," which was to reteam DreamWorks with artisanal British toon shop Aardman Animation after successes like "Chicken Run." That earlier version was being co-written by DeMicco with John Cleese, who retains a story credit here.

While his neighbors steadily have succumbed to the perils of the Stone Age, Crood brood patriarch Grug (Nicolas Cage) has kept his family safe by sticking to the simple rules mapped out in the cave paintings. His credo is: “Fear keeps us alive. Never not be afraid.” (Grammar obviously isn’t his strong point.) “No one said survival was fun.” Curiosity, for Grug, equals danger.

The hell they have to go through for sustenance is outlined in a dizzying hunting sequence near the start that’s like an over-caffeinated pro football game with a giant bird egg in place of the pigskin. Everyone in the family plays a role on the team, from wife Ugga (Catherine Keener) to plucky teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone), lunkhead son Thunk (Clark Duke) and leathery Gran (Cloris Leachman), Grug’s barely tolerated mother-in-law. Even the feral infant, Sandy, is deployed on cue with the battle cry, “Release the baby!”

But despite their tight synergy, the Croods’ world literally is crumbling around them. Eep’s growing rebellion against the physical and mental darkness of cave life also is causing friction with Dad. When she follows the light one night and meets Guy (Ryan Reynolds), with his mysterious invention of fire and his warnings of the destruction to come, Eep propels the family onto a quest toward the higher ground of tomorrow. Once she’s seen fire and she’s seen rain, there’s no looking back.

Aside from the earth opening up beneath them, the boulders flying and the predators at every turn, the chief conflict is between brawny Grug’s belief in his strength and Guy’s revolutionary reliance on ideas. The protective father’s anxiety over his daughter’s first crush adds to this still-somewhat-undernourished friction. Guy has a de rigueur animal sidekick in a sloth named Belt (“voiced” by co-director Sanders), who serves to hold up his pants as well as bring a cheeky sense of the dramatic.

Sanders and DeMicco’s script doesn’t have the robust plotting, consistent wit or flavorful character development of the best family animation. And some of the voice actors have too little to work with. Keener’s Ugga, for instance, is a strictly standard-issue caring Mom, while much of the humor built around Thunk’s obtuseness is soft. And like Betty White’s raunchy oldsters, Leachman’s ornery crones are starting to get as tired as those funky rapping grannies from ‘90s New Line comedies.

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With his weary rasp, however, Cage makes Grug a touching figure -- a knuckle-dragger at first and then steadily more resourceful as he sees the light. Stone’s smoky-voiced sweetness is nicely paired with the character’s butt-kicking physicality (it’s refreshing to see an animated teen girl more strapping than the cookie-cutter slender-princess model), and Reynolds brings the right note of earnestness to his forward-thinker.

Basically a journey tale with its erratic momentum pumped up by Alan Silvestri’s hard-working score, "The Croods" has its share of rambunctious episodes and frantic narrow escapes. Notable among them is the threat of a tornado-like flock of vicious Piranhakeets, razor-toothed birds that can strip a beast to its bones in seconds. “Stay inside the family kill circle!” warns Grug as they descend.

There’s a large assortment of fantasy animals to keep the merchandise division busy, among them parrot-hued giant felines, dogs with crocodile jaws, land-dwelling whales, monkeys with killer right hooks and owl-headed bears that owe a debt to Maurice Sendak. These critters give the film more in common with the slapsticky Looney Tunes era than with animation of recent vintage.

"The Croods" mercifully refrains from leaning too hard on anachronistic dialogue for laughs, settling for the occasional “awesome” or “sucky.” And it’s light on pop cultural cross-referencing, which also is a blessing. But especially after so many animated movies have raised the bar, the shortage of sophisticated humor likely will narrow the appeal here chiefly to the 4-to-10 age range.

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There are some decent gags built around inventions and accidental discoveries, such as snapshots, shoes (“Aaahhh!!! I love them,” squeals Eep in her prototype Uggs) and popcorn, in a crowd-baiting wink to the multiplex populace. Other touches, like the birth of the hug (rhymes with Grug), tap into an innocuous vein of schmaltz. But another polish or two to punch up the script wouldn’t have hurt.


Aside from teen dreamboat Guy, the character animation is not the prettiest; even Eep is slapped with rough-hewn features on an ultra-wide face. But there’s considerable imagination in the rendering of the landscapes, ranging from barren rock to lush jungle vegetation full of vibrantly exotic flora. Cinematography luminary Roger Deakins is credited as visual consultant, his influence perhaps discernible in the glow of stars, sun and fire, which is fitting given the thematic centrality of stepping into the light after hiding in darkness.

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