DreamWorks (2013) 98 min. PG
Director: Kirk De Micco & Chris Sanders
Screenplay: Kirk De Micco & Chris Sanders; Story: John Cleese, Kirk De Micco & Chris Sanders
Cinematography: Yong Duk Jhun; Editing: Darren T. Holmes
Production Design: Christophe Lautrette; Art Decoration: Paul Duncan & Dominique Louis
Score: Alan Silvestri
Stars: Nicholas Cage (Grug), Emma Stone (Eep), Ryan Reynolds (Guy), Catherine Keener (Ugga), Cloris Leachman (Gran), Clark Duke (Thunk), Chris Sanders (Belt), Randy Thom (Sandy)
Whenever I hear a familiar voice I can’t put a face to booming out from an animated film, it nags at me no end. Names are never given at the beginning of these pictures, like we’re used to seeing pursuant to the billing dictates of most star contracts. And the figures we hear these voices eerily emanating from are so unlike the faces we’ve associated them with, it triggers a short-term form of dissociative disorder. Such was the case with The Croods. The entire movie long I was waiting to find out who that gnawingly familiar voice behind Grug, the movie’s caveman father, belonged to, making it difficult to concentrate on anything else.
Yet, as is often the case in such situations, once I discovered Nicholas Cage was the ventriloquist, I just sort of shrugged. The revelation was anticlimactic, plus my confusion seemed perfectly understandable. Despite the sloping brow, no one would ever associate the cerebral, slightly built actor known for thinking outside the box when it comes to characterization, with this burly old bear who refuses to vary from form and must be dragged kicking and screaming into the light of a new day. Moreover the part seems to have been written (and drawn) with a far younger man in mind. If there’s such a thing as being miscast for a cartoon, this would certainly seem to be a case in point.
Studies of people and animals in locomotion comprised the earliest, primitive ‘movies’ shot by Eadweard Muybridge. Disney’s first feature cartoons likewise based their own character movement and expressions on life studies of real actors. The motion capture of today is really a technologically enhanced variation on these techniques that have existed since the beginnings of cinema. As animated characters appear more and more lifelike, to match the advancing technology, we’ve begun expecting them to bear the hallmarks of a CG performance.
We’ve come to expect the soul of an actor to be discernible somewhere in the lines and contours of the character they’re playing, however ingeniously the visual effects disguise their physical form, the way great movie makeups used to do in the past. However it’s impossible to tell these days where that dividing line lies between the lifelike animation of the The Croods and the motion capture performance art which has so unfairly heightened our expectations for toons. The final credits roll is treated like a flashing applause sign intended to generate shouts of ‘bravo’ by unveiling the vocal talent behind the mic. In addition to Cage, the movie has been gifted with an embarrassment of riches in the form of Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener and Cloris Leachman, though it fails to take any distinct advantage of them. Apart from Stone, whose voice is unmistakable, her throaty croak a sound recordist’s dream, nondescripts might have brought off these other parts as easily (Keener, in particular, is egregiously wasted).
When her caveman mother, Ugga, becomes concerned and urges caution near the end, for example, the change in her character doesn’t make sense. She’s just fulfilling a function of melodrama, same way Grug does when he bonds with that spindly little proto-human he’s trapped in the tar pit with. The gloppy emotions that spill forth seem stickier than the sap. It becomes downright mawkish once everyone starts revealing their finer natures, as Grug does when he hears his henpecking mother-in-law is still alive after tossing her over to the next cliff. After all, it was the mercenary thought that she’d never live long enough to complete the journey that motivated him to embark upon it in the first place. Grug’s contentious relationship with his mother-in-law was likely inspired by the familiar one in The Flintstones, but even Cloris Leachman’s harping harridan proves to have a heart of gold by film’s end. This primitive attempt at character development is the crudest thing about The Croods.
The movie is about a cave family headed by father Grug, who are still living in the Stone Age and facing extinction until they meet up with Guy, a gnarly little newfangled hominid. With his help they set off on a migration to safety as the tectonic plates shift and continents drift into pieces all around them. Last year, Pixars’ Brave received flack for so closely reflecting the familiar Disney princess paradigms, and this year DreamWork’s The Croods shamelessly courts comparison in setting and concept to Ice Age: Continental Drift, with a healthy sampling of the aforementioned Flintstones thrown in for good measure. For a movie about inventiveness, The Croods seems strangely incapable of thinking outside the box. Unlike the Ice Age artwork however, all abrasive edges and sharp angles, The Croods’ daubed look has been appealingly softened and rounded. Moreover, the colorful menagerie of purely invented animals look like nothing were familiar with from the earlier film, including furry, giraffe spotted mastodons and the ‘Bear Owl,’ a bizarre amalgam with a hooter’s face crossed with feline (or is it canine?) features.
The cave family Crood seem part animal themselves in their fur pelts, the men in bear hide and the women in designer tiger and zebra prints, while poor grizzled grandma is encased in a scaly old reptile skin. These Paleolithic people are akin to anthropoid apes, using bipedal locomotion interchangeably with dropping down on all fours to run at optimal speed with the pack. They have a more highly developed sense of smell as well, sniffing at the air as they do when tracking scents. There’s a strange form of anthropomorphism going on here. In older Disney cartoons, cutesy wutesy animals and inanimate objects were imparted with human qualities and behaviors intended to make them seem more relatable to viewers. In order to make these ape-men seem more relevant to modern eyes, the filmmakers have superimposed an equally anachronistic suburban family mindset upon them, the same way Hanna-Barbera did with The Flintstones.
That cartoon was a reimagining of The Honeymooners that used the prehistoric past as a metaphor for working class 60’s suburbia. The joke lay in the creative, primitive correlations cave people had derived for modern inventions like cars, telephones, sweepers, lawn mowers, garden hoses, garbage disposals etc., everything that was meant to have made life so much easier for us. The cleverness of the contraptions designed for use, like a cross between MGM’s Tarzan movies and something imagined by Buster Keaton, proved a major part of The Flintstones’ fun. There didn’t seem much left to invent. But if our prehistoric ancestors were really this suburbanized so early in our history, laying the bedrock for middle class complacency, there should be little need for them to have evolved any further over the past several million years.
While set in a purely fictional period of the past, The Croods share a similar anachronistic sensibility with The Flintstones, showing how much like us cave man actually was. The cross-country trek to the safety of higher ground is played like a standard family vacation, for instance, with one liners scripted to ape the amusingly familiar (“Are we there yet?” “I gotta go!” “Do you want me to turn this family around?”). Preparing for bed, the Croods sharpen their teeth with bones rather than a brush and ‘bathe’ by hanging from their cave ceiling in full fur pelt while having the dust swatted off them with a rug beater. Scenes are shaped around the spats of squabbling parents and siblings, and a baby is unleashed like the hounds to corral fleeing prey as a means of expending her excess energy while teething.
The story focuses on the eldest Crood daughter, Eep, who has entered the rebellious teenage years and is demanding her privacy and independence. She no longer wants to sleep in the family huddle, where they all pile on top of each other for warmth, like the wuzzles in Where the Wild Things Are. She wants her own ledge, the same way other girls want a private bedroom. But as she’s reminded, as long as she’s living in her parent’s cave, she will follow their rules or be grounded from swinging through the trees like a gibbon. Despite the exotic, Croodaceous era setting, The Croods is an allegory for all too tiresomely familiar family dysfunction.
As their name indicates, the Croods are meant to be coarse, vulgar, brutish, primitive, unevolved. They’re so offensively uncouth, they even affront the local wildlife as they traipse over the terrain, and one is half tempted to think they’re supposed to be a knock at the stereotypically loud, obnoxious American abroad. Like many teens, Eep is embarrassed by her family and feels (not incorrectly) that they’re holding her back from reaching her full potential. When Guy asks the frightened girl if she’s never seen rain before, sheltering her beneath one of his inventions- an umbrella, she shamefacedly admits that her backward family doesn’t get out much. And when they do, they don’t know how to behave in public, disporting themselves like local yokels. She can’t take them anywhere.
Top-heavy Eep has been drawn like a squat, heavy boned Pippi Longstocking, with a wiry red mop the texture of broom bristles and freckled flesh tones that the meticulous CG even renders the flaws in. Eep’s coloring is perfectly complimented by the canopy of green fringing her. She’s The Crood’s most successful characterization because she actually manages to evoke something of the essence of the actress playing her. She’s been done in exaggerated caricature, like a less evolved, Stone Age Emma Stone, who voices her with her signature gravelly chest tones. Programs online allow users to create cartoon versions of themselves, and this Eep avatar is like an animated reimaging of Stone’s features in the form of an anthropoid ape. She has the arm reach of a gibbon but the broad chest and heavy thighs of a lowland mountain gorilla. DreamWorks appears to have conscientiously swung to the far extreme of the Disney mold here, creating a decidedly unprincessy, Crood heroine characterized by her lack of refinement. Eep may seem a different sort of female as far as animated tradition is concerned, yet beneath her ape-like abandon, tiger skin and Amazonian heft, she still fits snugly into the Disney legacy of leads yearning for a life not smudged by cinders, above the sea or beyond their provincial village (many of which co-director Chris Sanders helped write). Eep too wants to break free from her restrictive existence and expand her horizons. Phonetically, Eep is meant to sound like Eve, original woman. Asking such philosophic questions as “Why are we here? What’s it all for?,” she’s the first dawning of sentient intelligence in the brutish mind of primitive man. In this cartoon variation on Quest for Fire, Eep extends her hands upwards, reaching for the receding light of knowledge as the sun’s rays rise higher and higher along the granite wall of the dark cave her backward clan inhabits. Guy’s fire, which lights up the night sky, brings the light of knowledge Eep has been seeking, so despite her father’s cautionary words, she follows after the fading flame, heedlessly placing herself in the path of danger. It’s worth risking her life just to bask in the figurative illumination Guy’s torch offers. With fire, man no longer has to live in the darkness of ignorance and superstition. Preventing him from being preyed upon by predators, such as those shearing-beaked piranha pelicans it wards off, fire allows man to rise to the top of the food chain.
Like Eep, Guy, whose generic name similarly designates him as original man, hates the dark and has discovered fire to vanquish it at will. He is homo erectus whose arrival pulls the Croods out of the stone age into an age of enlightenment. Under his tutelage they can evolve into modern man and one half expects to see a thought balloon pop up above their heads every time the light bulb goes off. Guy initially appears in full animal skin, a horned warthog mask, to frighten Eep away. But when he slips out of the Halloween costume the scrawny, hairless little hominoid’s underwhelming lack of heft makes him appear to have evolved further than any of the other humans onscreen. Streamlined and aerodynamic, Guy is downright dainty compared to the sturdily built, thickly boned Croods, who are squarer, squatter and move on all fours or swing through the trees with the graceful ease of great apes. So when Grug meets that tribe of punch monkeys after the film has drawn our attention to the similarity between ape and man, we wait for the big punchline, but the movie just leaves us hanging. The Croods manhandle Guy mercilessly, poking, prodding, squeezing him, trying to force out the fire he’s in possession of (“It doesn’t come out of him!”). Once captured, he’s encased in a hollow tree trunk as if he were a rolled up carpet and drug back to the den every time he tries to hop away. Guy’s brain has evolved to overcompensate for his physical shortcomings, which explains why he’s able to play the part of idea man, whereas Neanderthal Grug finds it impossible to formulate novel thoughts. Where Grug is determined to live in the past, Guy has seen the future, and like a messianic Moses with his pillar of fire, has been sent to lead the Croods to the Promised Land. Guy is the man of tomorrow today, a visionary. “Tomorrow is a place where things are better. I’ve seen it. That’s where I’m going.” And he plans on dragging the backward Croods into the future with him.
Full of inspirational thoughts and intent on proving necessity the mother of invention, he discovers fireworks, popcorn, and even gets the quaint notion to keep an animal for a pet instead of for food (“We call those children.”). But Belt, a koala-like sloth, earns his keep. He’s been put to functional purpose by holding up his master’s britches (though they don’t slip down when Belt’s not wrapped around Guy’s waist either). When he convinces the Croods to climb to the top of a tall tree, into the canopy of the surrounding stars, Guy seems to be playing Galileo, having conceived history’s first planetarium. In green camouflage hat, like a platoon soldier and later in a banana hat like Carmen Miranda, Guy is also a burgeoning fashion designer, creating a one of a kind creation to shoe each member of the Crood family, so that they can travel over rough terrain. In one of the movie’s brightest moments, Eep also proves ahead of her time, anticipating the obsession of the fashion-forward when she squeals with delight at the new couture adorning her feet.
An alarmed Guy initially mistakes the brutish Croods for animals, with their pointy teeth and tails (Grandma’s reptile skin retains its extremity), his prejudicial views on cave men unwittingly insulting Eep who he doesn’t realize is related. Guy displays taste, etiquette and civilized good manners when he eats, complete with a knife and fork, wiping his mouth with a leaf. So he’s horrified at the ravenous spectacle presented by the carnivorous Croods. They eat like pigs, wolfing down their food, and then lick themselves clean as if they’d been raised in a barn. For the little kids in the audience the movie seeks to serve a subliminal purpose, showing them how preferable being neat and tidy is to messy and unmannered. It’s trying to strain the wild man right out of them, same way Guy does the Croods, all the while cavalierly ignoring the fact that the more tame the Croods become, the less endearingly comic and compelling.
What The Croods is spoon-feeding us isn’t so far off from Disney either, despite the Stone setting. This is simple, wish-fulfillment cross-class fantasy, in which a privileged Guy lifts his Cinderella out of the ashes and teaches his future in-laws, the Croods, how to have some class befitting their newly evolved station in life. The thinly veiled phrenological digs at the disadvantaged don’t go unnoted. This fable of bringing culture to the Croods plays like a metaphor for the pacification of primitive cultures, it’s as though we were seeing the ancestral memory of imperialism given birth at the very dawn of civilized conscience. According to The Croods, the precedent was played out all the way back in prehistoric times.
The relationship of Guy and Grug is meant to show homo erectus and Neanderthal man just learning to get along together. As Grug has his family repeat the mantra “I will never do anything new or different,” he is meant to embody conservative wariness of progress, change. He’s invested in maintaining the status quo by permitting nothing to rock his world. Traditionalist Grug’s conflict with enlightened, forward thinking Guy is based on their separate approaches to problem solving. Grug uses his brawn to surmount his obstacles, whereas the slightly built Guy must use his brains. Fact is, Guy’s proclivities for formulating ideas and new inventions are as much an integral attempt to survive as Grug’s reliance on his brute strength (as he states “I can’t change. I don’t have ideas. All I have is my strength.”), his own evolutionary adaptation. Grug gets into a bitch slapping contest with those combative punch monkeys, for instance, whereas Guy wins them over by offering them bananas, placating them without ever throwing a punch.
In a scene straight out of Father of the Bride, Grug realizes that his day has passed, that his daughter no longer looks up to him as her hero, when Eep shrugs off his warning that the water looks dangerous, but flirtatiously takes to heart the advice that Guy offers about being careful. The knuckle dragging father who sits on his haunches like an old, ill-tempered silver back, is afraid of being supplanted in his daughter’s affections, same as he fears becoming obsolete as he sees Guy usurping his position as head of the household. This fear of being made redundant by such a polar shift in the family dynamic is set against a backdrop in which geologic and temperate changes threaten to make this caveman extinct in a much more literal sense. In order to evolve with the changing times, Grug must suppress his savagery, the dim light of understanding beginning to flicker in the back of his mind as he starts relying on his brain rather than his brawn for the first time in his life.
According to monosyllabic Grug, “Big words anger me,” because he can’t understand them. “I’m not an idea man, I’m not a modern man, I’m a cave man,” he asserts but desperate at seeing the respect of his family slipping away, still tries emulating Guy, with a similar surfer hairdo, snake belt that nearly constricts him to death, and a stoner style of speech that seems to go with the new look. He unveils an endless string of impressive new inventions like sunglasses, mobile homes, and a primitive form of photography (involving a slab covered in chalk being smashed against the subject’s face), that he should slap a patent on since some of these brainstorms are darn clever. He even hits upon a means of faster mobility that anticipates mankind’s greatest invention, the wheel. Yet these remain undeveloped ideas that haven’t been followed through the way Guy’s concepts have. But while they may lack the same functionality in their unrefined form, they only require the slightest tweaking to help them take off. His ideas seem every bit as good as Guy’s on the drawing board. Grug even begins using the same signifying gesture we’d earlier associated with Eep, raising his hand to try and catch the last fading rays of illumination.
Silly though its spin may be, by simply depicting cavemen so obviously linked to ape ancestors, a more Darwinian view of evolution, DreamWorks daringly chose to fly in the face of accepted religious dogma. Yet its climax is a variation on the biblical story of Noah. It’s sweetly sentimental seeing Grug save all those animals we’d been introduced to earlier, boarding them on his makeshift ark. But the movie picks and chooses in an upsetting manner. What becomes of that poor girelephant the family had been riding at the beginning? Or that quadruped Owl Bear or the blue punch monkeys? Yet a flock of those vicious piranha birds manage to survive when we’d just as soon see them go the way of the dinosaurs. This is an oddly selective ark. Moreover, were there no other people on that plateau? The world seems so utterly desolate and devoid of human life, one can understand why Eep’s family would dismiss her assertion that she’d happened across another person in the prehistoric wastes. One would think Guy and the Croods were the only human beings left in the world.
The Crood’s family motto (“Fear keeps us alive. Never not be afraid.” the overly vigilant father cautions) is a reworking of the old adage that curiosity killed the cat. Seeking a friend for the end of the world, the abandoned Grug snuggles with that Macawnivore he had been at odds with the entire time, as if it were a giant plush Furby. Conceived in a yummy swirl of pastel shades, this saber-tooth tiger may be the most endearing creation in the movie, the only character whose change of heart seems unforced and genuine. And he has a wicked sense of humor as he proves via his reaction shots when Grug eagerly enthuses that he has an idea for the first time in his life or that animatronic tiger head falls off in his paws. And the Macawnivore is full of surprises; when Grug sinks like a stone to the bottom of the lake, the big cat proves capable of swimming.
The Croods wants to encourage children to see the world as a wonderful place, full of excitement, adventure, and rewarding experiences rather than something to be afraid of. This becomes most apparent when the family finds itself split up in that cave comprised of mauve stalactite formations that resemble enormous ice crystals. Each must find their own way out of the darkness, struggling toward the light. The son, Thunk, is initially frightened by the yapping, doglike Crocopup that just wants to play fetch, but eventually adopts it as the family’s first pet. The mother and grandmother must don enormous flower petals for hats and dresses to pass beneath the carnivorous Venus flytrap foliage unobserved, in the process discovering designer wear. But all the same, were shown so many dangerous plants and animals littering this primeval ecosystem, Grug’s words of caution seem well worth taking to heart.
The terrain the family inhabits resembles a post-apocalyptic landscape, intellectually arid and creatively unstimulating, so the destruction of these cave people’s dwelling actually serves to expand their horizons, pushing them out of their comfort zone. A whole new world of color and excitement literally opens up for them as they see the fuchsia colored candy land beyond their cave walls for the first time. The lushly vibrant flora and fauna is set in direct contrast to the grey slab slate and parched desert sands that have dominated the movie’s color scheme heretofore. Suddenly the screen has been opened up with a water colorist’s palette of predominate greens, oranges, aqua and purples. We’re left as agog by this painterly phantasmagoria of plant and wildlife as the Croods are. This isn’t the Ice Age we’re familiar with but a lush vegetative lost world, a Garden of Eden that’s a delight to the eye.
There are daffodils that float up into the air like Chinese lanterns, bats that resemble mushrooms with eyes while hanging upside down from cave ceilings and a herd of four-legged, landlocked whales that keep their mouths open like colossal clams and expel the plankton gulped down by snorting them out their blowhole. There are attractive flocks of hot pink birds that resemble a cross between toucans and flamingoes, capable of stripping a carcass of its flesh faster than a school of piranhas. The party paddle across a marshy lake covered with green algae in giant upturned tortoise shells. Taking off from the exotic, antediluvian eras of the Crustaceous and the Pleistocene, this ‘Croodaceous’ period seems entirely of a scenic designer’s imaging. It’s the most creative aspect of this movie.
The Croods pays lip service to celebrating the capacity for creative imagination and artistry, which can only flower when one isn’t spending every waking minute scrounging for the next meal, living from hand to mouth (“That’s not living, that’s just not dying!”), but the way the script is built, you’d think primitive man’s slow crawl toward civilized enlightenment was realized with the invention of the laissez-faire lifestyle. Eep’s searching, philosophical questions are answered with the discovery of leisure time, disposable income, beaches, spa treatments, haute couture and gourmet dining. Despite all the free time afforded the Croods,’ they don’t devote themselves to developing art, culture, civilization, but to golfing, water polo and football games like the one waged over possession of that big Ostrich egg they’ve stolen, as other predators try divesting them of the kill. The camera gives us a running blow-by-blow, like an insane animated variation on some National Geographic special on pack hunting behavior in the wilds. Come to find The Croods were just reaching up for the last rays of the sun not in search of enlightenment but in order to get their tan on, bronzing their toned, golden bodies by the beach. Intellectually, culturally speaking, they remain hopelessly low brow.
Of all the inventions Guy’s Ice Age Edison devises, the most notable by far according to the filmmakers, is his discovery of descriptive storytelling. Guy invents jokes as opposed to simply telling a story, and for all their uncouthness, the Croods do have a highly advanced appreciation for off color humor, with example exchanges being Eep relating that she met a swine that turned into a boy, and her crusty old grandmother observing that it’s usually the other way around. Endeavoring to attract prey, they even invent a primitive form of ‘acting’ with their socks on a stick puppet shows. In some of the movie’s more amusing setups, Guy and Eep try to capture their next meal by luring a ‘Bearfish,’ a sort of spike-toothed moa, with a Dodo bird’s bill and a fin on its back. This bear decidedly remains a fish out of water, but they build a simulated lady Bearfish to lure him into their trap, having her lay an egg before his eyes to simulate mating season. Later, they’ll try the same tact with the far cleverer Macawnivore.
Grug’s fear that he has no brains or ideas is groundless since we can see he has the soul of a true artiste. We observe him virtually inventing animation with his cave paintings, all the elements for the creative impulse emerging here in their first rudimentary form. The link is made explicit when the stick figure pictographs he etches onto stone sprout forth into the fully realized computer enhanced figures populating the film. Grug is set forth as history’s first artist, and seeing a cartoon inventing cartooning has much the same effect on the psyche as M.C. Escher’s surreal painting of Drawing Hands, leaving one questioning which came first, the chicken or the egg.
Together with Grug’s invention of ‘photography’ and Guy’s gift for storytelling, the cornerstone is seen being laid that would go on to be refined over the next millennia, helping to make future films like The Croods, upon which the DreamWorks empire was built, possible. Grug’s cave paintings anticipate all the animation to come, so his discovery of art would seem to make him a far more vital inventor than Guy, as far as the creators of this movie, his spiritual heirs and descendants, are concerned.