A tip of the hat to the animators and digital artists who make The Croods more than just a family-friendly cartoon. New animated flicks often tack on 3-D because it guarantees a comfortable profit, but The Croods actually benefits from the 3-D. Even Pixar hasn't completely cracked how to make its films more engaging in 3-D than without the 30 percent markup for tickets, but Dreamworks pulls it off here with a romp through the Stone Age.
Of course, the film needs some kind of hook, because there's this thing called The Flintstones, which has more or less cornered the market on prehistoric cartoons for a while. The Croods are the last of their kind; all the other caveman families have been eaten or have run out of things to eat. But this family sticks together through cowardice. Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage) won't let his family out after dark, won't let them explore new places and won't let them go anywhere alone. Hey, it's gotten them this far ... and this far is isolated in their cave, where Grug tells nightly stories about stupid bears and stupid lions who wander off never to be heard from again.
Eep (Emma Stone) is sick of all the rules. She wants to see what's beyond her very tiny world, and one night while the family sleeps (in a precisely named "sleep pile"), she ventures out on her own. Before long, Eep stumbles onto a more modern-looking boy than she's used to. His name is Guy (Ryan Reynolds), and he can make fire and do other impressive things. Guy tells her that the world as she knows it is about to end, so she should come with him to whatever it is the future holds.
Many animated films have followed a similar path to give their characters a larger-than-life journey. Finding Nemo was almost literally a fish-out-of-water story, Wall-E took the robot out of his comfort zone, and all the Toy Story and Ice Age and Madagascar movies do the same thing. So when the Croods have to leave their cave behind, it's not a major surprise. But that doesn't mean everyone's happy about the trip. Grug hates every step along the way. He's scared of everything, he's losing his daughter to this heroic kid with all the big ideas and he's stuck with his mother-in-law (Cloris Leachman). Speaking of the mother-in-law, there's a funny, recurring joke in The Croods in which Grug does a head count after every misadventure and is always depressed when his wife's mother hasn't been killed off.
Leachman is always good for some acidic one-liners, but she's kind of underused here. The same goes for Catherine Keener, playing Eep's mother. The real conflict of the film is between Grug, Eep and Guy, so most of the other characters don't mean much. But if that's the case, why spin the wheels of Leachman and Keener, who can deliver so much more?
Perhaps the characters played a larger role earlier, before Cage swooped in and stole the movie. He's capable of this, you know. Cage seems pretty comfortable dazzling in roles like this one or in Kick-Ass and then dipping his cup into mediocrity or worse (Ghost Riders aplenty, Drive Angry, and on and on). But when he hits, he's like a streak shooter in basketball. There has always been some quicksilver energy to Cage, the kind that makes him find something totally unique even when he completely misses the mark. And in a sense that's what makes him good at voice acting. He can find notes other actors can't because he's free in his own mind to try anything. He's great throughout The Croods, making the film worth watching even if it didn't have that great 3-D.
The animation is not perfect, mind you. The character design is dated and it isn't as crisp as it should be. But the backgrounds, the movement of the characters and the way they all come together is terrific.
An unusual bit of backstory to close this out: The Croods began life 180 degrees away from rich, wondrous 3-D. Dreamworks originally envisioned it as stop-motion animation and had a deal in place with Aardman (the Wallace & Gromit gang) to make something called Crood Awakening about a decade ago. John Cleese even wrote a script for it. Cleese retains a story credit here, the only fossil evidence from the prehistoric version of this funny, eye-catching family film.