On one level, THE CROODS is a funny, heartwarming, and imaginative look at life in the original dark ages, those of prehistoric humankind crouching in their caves surviving, barely, in a state of perpetual fear of the dark. And it would be perfectly fine to enjoy this animated film from Dreamworks in just that way. But on another, more sophisticated level, it is about humankinds evolution, not just from proto-human to modern homo sapiens, but rather the trickier, and ongoing, evolution from fear to enlightenment. Or at least not rejecting something just because its new. It may not be a coincidence that co-writer John Cleese was once a famously strident atheist, and has in his old age taken up a more spiritual worldview, one reflected here. It may also not be a coincidence that there are sly jabs at certain political philosophies, the ones that have a tendency to look backward.
The family about to learn many life lessons, few of them voluntarily, are the eponymous Croods, a nuclear family in the Stone Age that greets each morning with a rousing and somewhat startled Im still alive! Its a harsh world out there, but with teamwork, including the supportive family kill circle, and the wary but firm leadership of Grug (Nicolas Cage in one of his best performances in years, albeit only his voice), they have outlasted their neighbors. Mere survival, though, is not enough for older daughter Eep (Emma Stone), though. A sulky child who resents rules, she tests her fathers boundaries, which infuriates him, and refuses to join the family sleeping pile, preferring her own ledge, which hurts his feelings. Yet its her forbidden sense of curiosity that eventually saves her family. Looking out of the family cave, she sees what looks like the sun floating through the night. Its not, of course, but it is a new bright spot in her world. That would be Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a plucky and forward thinker who has mastered the art of fire, and of using sloths to hold up his proto-pants. Guy also brings tidings of the end of the world as he knows it, and before the earth can open and swallow them all up, or otherwise dispose of them with extreme prejudice, Eep, her mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), brother Thunk (Clark Duke), grandma Gran (Cloris Leachman) and baby sisterSandy (Randy Thom), convince a reluctant Grug to follow Guy to safety, or at least away from certain death.
There are familiar tropes at work here. Eep and Guy are the opposites that attract. Grug doesnt care for another man in his daughters life, and even less for his mother-in-law. Ugga is warm and nurturing, even when engaging in a life-or-death race for morning breakfast, and Thunk is a dim-witted as his name implies. Still, the writing is bright as well as clever, with wit as well as pratfalls, and a lively visual imagination that doesnt let a little think like the fossil record get in its way. Or geology. Or physics.
The territories traversed begin in a landscape not unfamiliar to a certain roadrunner-chasing coyote before moving on to jungles with aggressively vibrant colors, stone mazes, and an ocean bottom minus the ocean. Its too marvelous to quibble about, making even the kinetically plumed flying turtles as welcome as the mastodon with the giraffe-patterned spotting, or the lime-tinted saber-toothed feline. The sense of wonder is the be all and end all of this universe.
The animation is fearless, from fast-moving races against death and towards breakfast, to masterful details that bring that action to life. Its not just that the animators can make every hair on Eeps head sway, its that they can make them waves sinuously. They can also make Eeps first encounter with sparks of flame suitably mystifying and magical as they float with glistening insouciance.
What is best, and riskiest, in this storytelling is the way that the sense of danger is palpable, even when things are looking rosiest, and the impulse to hope is at its strongest when things look most dire. Sure, its hilarious when pre-verbal Sandy is unleashed on an unsuspecting potential meal, and suitably absurd when most of them dive for cover when encountering anything new, but its also heartbreaking when one member of the group decides on self-sacrifice. The writing moves easily from one to the other because it has hit upon elemental truths about family and about having the courage to face fear without regret. These characters are not deep, but they have the foibles, the quirks, and the failings that are endearing. Even Guy, the putatively smartest of the bunch has a few lessons to learn about pre-conceived notions involving cave-dwellers and over-protective fathers.
THE CROODS has a palpable emotional resonance as well as high adventure, low comedy, and a effervescent sense of fun. If the only enlightenment you want is a great time at a movie, it works just as well as if you want to plumb the philosophical depths of a closed mind opening wide. And, because there are those of us who stick it out until the very end of the credits in order to report on these sorts of things, yes, there is a pay-off at that very end.