In the long-running Geico commercials featuring him, the running tagline has been "So easy, a caveman could do it" upon which the said contemporary character becomes exasperated with the stereotype of his kind being prehistoric simpletons. Alas, and aside from a few exceptions such as the characters seen in 1981's "Quest for Fire," most portrayals have not been terribly flattering. From the most recent "Year One" back through the male characters in "The Flintstones" and all of the various historically inaccurate dinosaur movies, cavemen are pretty much the Rodney Dangerfields of prehistoric characters.
Speaking of such long-running stereotypes and more modern ones, we now have the awkwardly titled "The Croods," a computer-animated comedy, drama and action pic that some viewers might mistake the pronunciation as "The Crudes" and think this is some sort of gross-out flick about boorish, loud and obnoxious people. The characters that appear on the screen may be loud, but this is a portrayal of cavemen (and cavewomen) seen through a somewhat different perspective than before.
It's a fable about our ever-changing world, father-daughter relationships, not letting fear or pride get in the way of growth and, most obviously, about having a strong family unit to get through life. That might sound a tad heavy for a flick that on its surface looks like something of a cinematic cousin to the similarly animated "Ice Age" movies. While those themes are present and provide plenty of food for thought, post-movie viewing conversations between parents and their kids, they're never overbearing to the point of dragging down the flick or slowing its decidedly upbeat tempo.
The first theme is what propels the story forward from its fairly straightforward premise. The Croods are a family of prehistoric hunter-gatherers who mostly live in a cave in order to survive their fairly hostile world. Grug the dad (Nicolas Cage delivering a good vocal performance) is the constant worrier and protector of the family that includes his steady wife (Catherine Keener), stir-crazy teenage daughter (Emma Stone), hesitant son (Clark Duke), their toddler sibling (who doesn't speak but operates off a funny riff on the old "Release the Kraken" line) and their grandmother (Cloris Leachman) who irritates her son-in-law.
When a more intellectually advanced and worldly stranger (Ryan Reynolds) shows up and informs them that the world as they know it is going to change in a bad way (and a subsequent earthquake literally proves that point), the family and their new guide hit the road, so to speak, resulting in the plot's forward momentum. It also continues the running element about the teenage daughter believing her over-protective dad is suffocating her life (something to which a lot of real life such people on both sides can relate) and that one must not live in a literal and figurative cave for fear of what's out "there." And while that briefly fractures part of the family structure (as the rest of the members side with the newcomer's wisdom and leadership over the dad's staid, old ways), it all wraps back around into a stronger unit and accompanying happy ending.
None of which should surprise anyone (as few animated films aimed at kids and families conclude on a sad or depressing note). Co-writers/directors Kirk De Micco ("Space Chimps") and Chris Sanders ("How to Train Your Dragon") make sure to mix in plenty of action, a few moments of peril and plenty of comedy bits (slapstick style, animal sidekick related, and some fun, Flintstone-esque prehistoric inventions) to keep the overall feeling energetic and buoyant.
Like many of the best contemporaries of its genre, it also has heart and some surprisingly effective emotional moments near the end. Even better, and much like "Brave" did last year, it features a strong female protagonist who's more physically realistic than many of her animated predecessors in terms of bucking the traditional, doe-eyed, Barbie style physical attributes. Eep looks like a cave-girl probably would, short, stout and athletic, yet with unconventional (for a movie) attractive features, while Stone's solid voicing makes her appealing to all.
Throw in some gorgeous computer-animation and some fairly effective 3D effects and the result is a fairly entertaining pic for viewers of all ages, with the bonus of plenty of thematic material to generate good conversations with kids. It might not be up to snuff with the absolute best that Pixar and even DreamWorks (this film's studio) have released over the years, and its general story might be as old as the hills, but it's told well and with heart. "The Croods" rates as a 6 out of 10.