Monty Python alum John Cleese once co-wrote a book called Families and How to Survive Them. Given that, I suppose my jaw shouldn't have dropped, then, to see his co-story credit on the animated adventure The Croods, in which a bickering modern stone-age family daily enthuses, "Still alive!"
Nevertheless, Cleese's name comes as a surprise after an hour and a half, given the degree to which The Croods—though set in a world of mortal danger—plays it safe. Writer-directors Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders (the latter best known for How to Train Your Dragon) carry the rock over the goal line with enough slapsticky action and mild gags to hold kids' attention. But discerning audience members will wish for more in the plot department and greater courage in convictions.
The Croods inclood Grug (Nicolas Cage) and Ugga (Catherine Keener), daughter Eep (Emma Stone), son Thunk (Clark Duke), feral baby Sandy (Randy Thom), and Grug's mother-in-law Gran (Cloris Leachman). (Yes, there's something meta about telling stone-age mother-in-law jokes.) Grug protects his family with brute strength and, more importantly, reinforcement of "routine and darkness and terror." His mantra of "Never not be afraid" leads credulous Thunk to say things like "I will never do anything new or different."
Naturally, the curious Eep wants a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view, no one to tell her "no" or where to go or say she's only dreaming. So one night she steals out of the family cave and, lo and behold, meets Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who'd be a teen pin-up were it not still a time of cave paintings. Not only because he is a guy, the literally evolved Guy represents everything Eep feels she has been sheltered from: ideas, innovation and, in short, "tomorrow." (The hottie also comes with a cutie, his belt being a live, meep-meeping pet sloth voiced by Sanders.)
When it becomes apparent that a fiery extinction-level event will soon tear through their homeland, the Croods hitch their survival to fire-bearer Guy, much to Grug's dismay. Off they go in the direction of a verdant lost world of wonderment, an opportunity to animate crazy-colorful flora and fauna to supplant the rocks and dirt of home.
There's an obvious message here about parental overprotectiveness and a need to step out of that shadow and not allow one's life to be defined by fear. The irony is that The Croods appears to have been market-tested to within an inch of its life, so despite a theme of finding the capacity to evolve, the picture remains mired in the tar pit of formula. At a key turning point, the picture climactically misses an opportunity to address real-world consequences and inititate some conversation that runs deeper than "I liked the part where they played football with the egg!"
Even as it panders to kids, The Croods takes care not to offend parents too badly for being behind the times, as there's also a theme of parental sacrifice and unspoken love, rewarded with hugs all around at the end. It's just disappointing that the picture feels an obligation to be reassuring and noncommittal, wrapping up with the thought "Anyone can change. Well, sort of."
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]