Last night, I watched the 2013 animated feature The Croods. It’s an amusing and fun but ultimately forgettable film about a family of cavemen and their journey from fear to curiosity. Or something. It is kind of hard to say because the film only plays around with a plot.
The story focuses on Grug, the father, and Eep, his discontented teenage daughter. Grug believes in the old ways, which are basically that doing things as you always have is the best way not to get killed. This is summed up very well at the beginning of the film when Grug tells the family a story, “Tonight we’ll hear the story of Krispy Bear. A long time ago, this little bear was alive. She was alive because she listened to her father and lived her life in routine and darkness and terror. So she was happy! But Krispy had one terrible problem: she was filled with curiosity. And one day, while she was in a tree, the curious little bear wanted to climb to the top. And no sooner than she climbed to the top, she saw something new… And died!”
At the end of this story, the son, Thunk, says, “I will never do anything new or different!” But the family is forced to do something new because it seems that they are living on a volcano that is quickly becoming active. Or at least that’s what I assume is happening; it is never really explained. Along the way, they hook up with Guy, a creative young man who knows the secrets of fire and puppets. Plus, he has a pet sloth named Belt, who might as well be a puppet. So he’s the smart and creative hero of the film. He contrasts with the rather dim but good-hearted Grug.
The whole clan make their way to safety and learns valuable life lessons along the way. Fair enough. But the film shows all the advanced thinking on gender roles as an episode of Leave it to Beaver. This is not helped by a stream of mother-in-law jokes, even if they are funny. But most of all, the main character is supposedly Eep, the girl who wants more out of life than simply not dying. However, after Guy shows up, she spends most of her time mooning over him. This is often adorable, but not exactly what I would want my children (that I don’t have) watching.
The biggest problem I had with The Croods was getting over its absolutely ridiculous portrayal cavemen as stupid and fearful. Humans have long been alpha predators. There are few creatures who we need fear, and only a couple who see us as prey. At one point, the family catches a ride on a mammoth, but it never occurs to them that they might kill and eat it. But then, none of animals make much sense either. The animals are all very creatively rendered, but aren’t anything the earth has ever seen. As a result, I spent much of the film wondering if we weren’t on another planet or something.
I fought through all of these concerns, though. Ultimately, however, I think the filmmakers would have been better off restricting themselves to something a little more grounded in reality. What they ended up with was a universe of creatures that were too fanciful. They didn’t create a unified whole the way that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland did. The problem is likely related to the fact that the cave area terrain is realistic. Later in the film when they are in the jungle, the whole thing looks rather like Wonderland, and as a result, works.
Ultimately the film is a romp and as such, it is rather fun. But it doesn’t rise to the level films like ParaNorman and Frankenweenie. And that’s a shame because the animation itself is really good. I was very impressed with the water and wind and fire effects. And the faces conveyed far more emotion than is normal in animated films. What’s missing is a compelling character focused plot. Instead, the film just meanders from sequence to sequence. Almost randomly, Grug and Guy have a meeting of minds and work together. Guy seems to to become attracted to Eep at a certain point in the film, not because he sees anything in her but because the writers got tired of pushing the “Eep coming on too hard” jokes. And given that there is nothing constraining the universe of the film, the whole “road trip” aspect of the film is nothing but an intellectual exercise. We don’t know where we are going and the road to get there runs from Mad Max to Alice in Wonderland to Lord of the Rings.
But I enjoyed it. How could I not? It’s a very pro-puppet movie. And it’s all very sweet and has a number of very funny bits in it. And I liked all the characters, especially Grug, who is voiced perfectly by Nicolas Cage. But I wanted more. And with a budget of $135 million, the least they could have done is work a little harder on the script. That’s over twice the cost of ParaNorman and three times the cost of Frankenweenie. But there are worse things, like most live action Hollywood films. And I can’t complain too loudly about any film that tries to celebrate intelligence and open-mindedness.