Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Cinema File #144: "The Croods" Review


 Before I start this review, I have to admit a little bias here. I am an unabashed Nicolas Cage fan, to the extent that I might not always be able to be the most objective critic when it comes to movies that feature him. I don't think that my love for the actor's oddball style is necessarily relevant to my feelings about his latest film The Croods, as I imagine I probably would have liked this movie just as much with another actor in Cage's role. That being said, I'm also an easy mark when it comes to animated movies, so for all I know this one is terrible, and I'm just too distracted by the things I personally groove on to notice. I don't believe this of course, but I felt I should put it out there just in case.




The Croods is the story of the titular family of cave-people living in the most fanciful depiction of prehistoric Earth ever committed to film as they venture out into the unknown to escape the segmenting of Pangaea, led by the over protective patriarch Grug, and a plucky young inventor named Guy. We follow the events through the eyes of the adventurous Eep, a teenage cave girl somehow physically embodying the charm of her voice actress Emma Stone, whose independent spirit, curiosity, shocking red hair, and big eyes made me think she might just be the much more entertaining ancestor of the girl from Brave (thankfully without the incomprehensible Scottish brogue). The rest of the characters are somewhat less developed, but they're all fun in their own way and really work well together as an ensemble.


We see the way every member of this primitive family compliments each other in an opening scene displaying what one assumes is their daily routine to hunt for breakfast, fumbling around with a giant bird's egg like a stampeding football team. Its an explosion of cartoony activity that sets us up nicely for what's to come, crazily frenetic and incredibly fun to look at, with instantly engrossing personalities and a style that is all at once very unique in terms of modern CGI toons, and evocative of classic Tex Avery-an choreography. The father Grug takes the cliche of the outrageously overprotective parent to its furthest extreme, but its forgiven considering he lives in a world where that mindset makes sense, where everything around him wants to kill him and his family. As he's forced to accept life outside of the safety of the cave, the family comes together and realizes what life is really worth.


Before I talk about the characters or the story in anymore detail, I need to mention the design work that makes this movie so visually engaging. Recognizing that everything I know about this era in human history comes from popular culture, which is itself formed entirely upon a superficial understanding of research that is itself purely conjecture, I find my initial instinct to reject this film's almost fantastical depiction of prehistoric Earth as somewhat silly in retrospect. This period was almost certainly not as vibrantly colorful or eclectically populated as the world of The Croods, but since we don't know for sure what it was like anyway, I can't complain. If you've ever played the PC game Spore or the Wii version Spore Hero, you have a good idea of what this place is like, with flora and fauna including giant walking trees, tornadoes of piranha birds, giant ravenous meerkats, and so on, all painted with a palette right out of Dr. Seuss.


I can't help but think back on the last big animated movie I saw in theaters this year, the generally pleasant but mostly lackluster Escape From Planet Earth. I remember thinking that for all its initial charm and wit, by spending so much time on Earth it never fully exploited the potential of its premise to explore other worlds and meet all the interesting alien species living on them. Here, the whole thing is on Earth, and yet this weird off kilter version of it seems so much more vast and filled with life. Something as simple and strange as a Siamese twinned animal connected at the tail, or a stampede of pygmy elephants, adds just that much little detail to show how much imagination and care went into this production. I don't want to gush too much, but I think I probably would have been satisfied with this movie even if the story and the characters weren't interesting, just on the visual style alone.


And The Croods is much more than just visually exciting. This family is instantly lovable without succumbing to any of the pitfalls that normally plague cartoon movies for kids. Walking into this movie I worried that the premise might just turn out to be an excuse for a nondescript Flintstones update replete with puns and cheesy one liners, but instead it takes the same ideas and exploits them to tell a very funny and surprisingly moving adventure. It's wacky without being annoying, the merging of modern family dynamics with absurdly exaggerated cave man realities never coming off as too hokey or contrived. Even the comic relief characters like the little Sloth named Belt and the monosyllabic wild child baby, which in any other movie would be unbearable attempts to cash in with happy meal toys, are perfectly endearing from beginning to end. And that's basically the movie in a nutshell.


Now that I review movies online on a regular basis, I'm trying to commit to seeing every wide release animated film of 2013. So far there have been two, and while the first one wasn't all it could have been, The Croods easily justifies the effort, and anyone who appreciates animation, or just great family films, as much as I do should definitely give this one a chance.
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