Even though success-wise DreamWorks Animation can easily keep up with its main competitor, quality-wise the studio has long lived in the shadow of Pixar. Each studio’s new releases inevitably yielded comparisons, with DreamWorks usually finishing second. Whereas Pixar usually delivered well-written, nuanced characters and a heartfelt story to go along with the dazzling visuals and hearty humor, DreamWorks all too often relied on pop-culture-references-littered “easy” humor, quirky side characters, action-laden plots and major Hollywood stars lending their voices to the characters. That’s not to say that I didn’t like all of DreamWorks’ earlier output. Over the Hedge was good fun and at least the first Shrek was a somewhat clever Disney deconstruction (though I could have done with less pop culture-based humor). That said, with an odd exception or two, DreamWorks could never measure up to the high bar set by Pixar. That is until How to Train Your Dragon brought the turn three years ago. Obviously influenced by its famous competition, How to Train Your Dragon remains the best Pixar-movie, Pixar has never made. It still bore some of DreamWorks’ trademarks and achieved a nearly perfect blend between jolly humor, loveable and relatable characters (of course again voiced by major stars) and action. On top of that, How to Train Your Dragon (under the consultancy of the ever-great Roger Deakins) boasted some of the most breathtaking visuals seen in an animated movie to date and more than justified its 3D premium. Blessed with the biggest financial success for DreamWorks outside of the Shrek-franchise, the studio heads must have known, they were on the right path. While none of the follow-ups to Dragon could live up to it, DreamWorks has never been as good before that film as it was after it. Kung Fu Panda 2 and last year’s Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted turned out to be by far the best entries in their respective franchises. Rise of the Guardians unfortunately let down at the box-office, but under the guidance of the filmmaking genius Guillermo Del Toro, at least visually it was every bit as magnificent and captivating as How to Train Your Dragon.
So it is fitting that yet another highlight on DreamWorks’ résumé comes from How to Train Your Dragon’s director Chris Sanders, though this time paired with Kirk De Micco instead of his Dragon- and Lilo & Stitch-collaborator Dead DeBlois. The Croods tells the story of Eep (Emma Stone) and her cavemen family living in, you guessed it, a cave. Led by the muscle-bound pater familias Grug (Nicolas Cage), the last remaining prehistoric family around (the others, as explained in the neatly animated prologue, bit the dust due to the hostile environment) represents an array of quirky individuals. There is Grug’s snappy (literally) mother-in-law (Chloris Leachman), his patient wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), Eep’s daft brother Thunk (Clark Duke) and an out-of-control baby sister Sandy. In order to survive in their world, where danger lurks around every corner, Eep and her family have to follow a simple set of rules, constantly enforced by the overprotective Grug. Never leave the cave after dark as darkness means death. Even worse than darkness are curiosity and novelty, both of which inevitably led to immediate death. At least so says Grug. It doesn’t make his life easier that Eep is just bursting with curiosity about the world and what lies beyond the tight boundaries of the cave. When Eep breaks the supreme rule and sneaks out of the cave at night, she encounters Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a slightly more developed representative of the human species. Physically vastly inferior, Guy is a charming and resourceful fella and he carries something Eep has never seen before – fire. After the initially awkward encounter, Guy warns Eep that the world, as she knows it, is about to come to an end. When Eep’s worried father appears, he wants none of that, but before he can utter “Argh!” his family’s cave is obliterated by a massive earthquake. In spite of Grug’s skepticism, the Croods embark on a journey to safety that leads them through strange lands, populated by a multitude of bizarre creatures, one seemingly more dangerous than another. With Guy as their reluctant guide, the misfits need to learn that the only way they can make it, is by learning to trust and help one another.
To get the obvious comparison out of the way, The Croods is not another How to Train Your Dragon, nor does it really try to be. There are undeniable similarities with the father-daughter dynamic being a little reminiscent of the father-son dynamic in Sanders’ previous film, but the focus here is less on pulling heartstrings and developing characters and more on the sheer lunacy of the world created on-screen. The visuals are not as artful or awe-inspiring as in Dragon’s unforgettable flight scenes, but in their own way none the less impressive, with the 3D-effects for once being worth the extra money. The dizzying hunting scene at the beginning of the movie, in which the Croods are trying to steal an egg from a prehistoric monster-bird, sets the mood for the rest of the film. What the film lacks in heart, it makes up in laughs. With an overabundance of sight gags, high-octane action and a seemingly endless variety of ludicrous creatures (which include land-dwelling whales, crocodile-dogs, Siamese-twin-mice, lizad-coyotes and owl-bears), The Croods never allows for a single dull moment throughout its running time. The various creations that the filmmakers came up with for the movie never cease to amaze and keep surprising the viewer with their randomness, absurdity and inventiveness. A lot of work has been put into detail here, with several bizarre creatures popping up for blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments (keep an eye out for the saber-toothed bunny!). It’s true that the character design for the cavemen is not particularly cute or appealing and takes a little time to get used to, but their hulking exteriors also allow for plenty of well-done physical comedy. However, for all the visual humor, the film’s also not too light on dry wit. Monty Python’s John Cleese was involved in the early treatments of the screenplay and it appears that some of his humorous spirit has persevered. Furthermore, we’re luckily spared the pop culture reference, though silly humor does make an appearance once or twice, fitting with the ridiculousness of the whole thing. It is also refreshing that there is no real villain to deal with in the film (unless you count Mother Nature), so that it can just focus on the adventures of the family without any good vs. evil conflict.
It is in its few dramatic moments that the movie falters. The whole rebellious, misunderstood daughter-well-meaning parent relationship has been well-explored in last year’s Brave and feels tacked-on here towards the film’s ending. Certain scenes have been designed to evoke an emotional response from the audiences, but they simply don’t ring true as most of the film before that devotes itself to being a funny romp rather than focusing on family dynamics. The characters here aren’t particularly nuanced, with just Eep and Grug going beyond one-dimensional caricatures. Luckily, the movie doesn’t dwell on the drama too long and returns to being its crazy, hilarious self before the viewer can really get bothered about the film coming to a halt.
The Croods isn’t DreamWorks’ best animated film. It’s not their second best either. But it makes for a very fun night at the theatre, which evokes memories of the first Ice Age-film (when that franchise still used to be original and funny) with vastly improved visuals. While the kids will have a blast with The Croods, the adults won’t find themselves bored either. Unlike Rise of the Guardians and How to Train Your Dragon, The Croods takes a step back from emulating Pixar and instead just does what DreamWorks does best - comedy. And it succeeds by delivering the funniest movie of this year so far.