The humor’s classic or prehistoric, depending on your tolerance for slapstick. The animation is state of the art. And the life lessons are all too wearily contemporary in “The Croods,” an energetic DreamWorks digital cartoon feature about a family of Stone Age cave dwellers who make the Flintstones look as sophisticated as the Jetsons.
Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage) is the Neanderthalesque father, more comfortable with a club than with a thought. Ugga (Catherine Keener) is his patient wife. Thunk (Clark Duke) is his dim young son. Gran (Cloris Leachman) is the mother-in-law so old she wears a lizard skin instead of fur. And Eep (Emma Stone) is the story’s heroine and the audience’s focus for identification, a brave — as in “Brave” — young rebel dissatisfied with a Neolithic status quo that tells her curiosity kills, “ideas are for weaklings,” and “routine and darkness and terror” — i.e., life in a cave, foraging for food by day and hiding from predators by night — is the best a young cavegirl can expect.
“Basically, anything fun is bad,” Eep says, summarizing her loving but overprotective dad’s cautious survival strategy.
To the credit of directors/writers Chris Sanders (the superior “How to Train Your Dragon”) and Kirk De Micco (moving up the evolutionary scale from his previous film, “Space Chimps”), Eep is not your standard cartoon beauty with attitude. She has an hourglass waist, true, and an eager if toothy smile, but she’s squat and somewhat anthropoidal in both appearance and athleticism. She’s primitive but also vivacious next to the mysterious, modern-looking young man who shows up one night in the cave family’s rocky valley, a clever guy named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) who introduces Eep and her cavekin to the concepts of fire, shoes, pets (Guy travels with a lovable sloth) and extinction: He insists everybody head for safer ground before the earthquakes and volcanoes catch up with them.
Like the recent sequel “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” the movie follows the characters’ migration through a prehistoric wilderness of imaginative “Avatar”-esque creatures
and other menaces and surprises. (The visual highlight is an all-devouring flock of what might be called piranha birds.) Even as the Croods are chased by various critters, the film pursues standard sitcom themes about watchful dads and restless daughters itching to leave the cave and “go for the light.”
In other words, “The Croods” repeats the dynamic of the recent “Hotel Transylvania,” the last digitally animated feature about a weird yet typical family with a suspicious, jealous dad and an impatient daughter attracted to an unconventional newcomer. The familiarity likely won’t bother kids, or most of their parents: The audience at the preview I attended applauded at the end of the film, and the little girl behind me declared: “I love this movie!”
Why wouldn’t she? Some conservative pundits like to say movies represent a threat to traditional family values, but, seriously, is any entity as aggressive at affirming the importance of family togetherness as Hollywood? The typical modern animated feature spends much of its time reminding parents and kids that they love each other, as if the current family unit is much more fragile and needy than those that enjoyed “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Jungle Book.”
Perhaps it is. Maybe attending these movies together provides a ritual security for parents and children. In any case, “The Croods” bludgeons you with family-friendly life lessons with all the subtlety of a club-wielding Alley Oop selecting a mate. Guy discovers fire, sure, but it’s Grug who invents the hug.
Judging from the crawl at the end of “The Croods,” kids and dads aren’t the only ones who need boosts to their self-esteem. Like some other recent films, “The Croods” acknowledges not only those who created the movie but seemingly the entire DreamWorks staff, including those in “business and legal affairs,” “financial accounting,” “human resources, recreational and outreach,” and “marketing and home entertainment products.” Why punish those few aficionados who sit through the end credits? By the end of this endurance test of a roll call, I was half-expecting to learn the name of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s paperboy.
“The Croods” opens Friday at the CinePlanet 16, Collierville Towne 16, Cordova Cinema, DeSoto Cinema 16, Forest Hill 8, Hollywood 20 Cinema, Majestic, Palace Cinema, Paradiso, Stage Cinema and Summer Quartet Drive-In.