The Croods: Almost an Animated Classic 

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The Croods
Directed by Kirk de Micco and Chris Sanders

The last time Nicolas Cage flipped out about whether to return to caves as a means of self-preservation in the face of the gathering apocalypse was in service of the wacked end-of-dayser Knowing. The Crood family, headed up by father Grug (voiced by Cage), is also confronted by the end of the world as they know it, but it's been a longer time coming. As explained by daughter Eep (Emma Stone) in the apparently now-standard DreamWorks Animation opening voiceover, other cave-families have been steadily dying off. Grug's solution is the one that Knowing Cage ranted against: stay in caves. Don't go outside. New experiences are bad.

So, yes, this particular end of the world—the ground periodically cracks open beneath the characters; cliffs fall away into newly exposed rivers of lava—is deployed to tell another cartoon story for kids really designed to teach parents about letting go, trusting their spawn, and not fearing the unknown. Pixar has cornered this market with a series of films (the Toy Story series; Finding Nemo; The Incredibles; Monsters, Inc.) that, taken together, double as a treatise on modern parenting. But it's no surprise that DreamWorks would get into this game, too: they've got a two-to-three-movie-per-year pipeline to fill, without the spirit of adventurousness you'd hope that might engender in America's busiest big-screen animation outfit.

Despite a substantial helping of secondhand elements, though, The Croods does represent a more adventurous corner of the studio: specifically, the one supervised by codirector Chris Sanders, who jumped from one of Disney's best features, Lilo & Stitch, to How to Train Your Dragon, the biggest non-Shrek hit in DreamWorks history. The odd-looking cave family of The Croods provides a perfect showcase for Sanders's digital line, one of the more recognizable in the team-driven world of big-business feature animation. The Croods have oblong-ish heads framed with near-unibrows and uneven teeth, and their hands and feet look tiny compared to their meatier arms and legs (their semi-feral baby, Sandy, also resembles the destructive Stitch, in both appearance and temperament). These designs should be hideous, and at first they are, but by the time the family encounters a more evolved species of man called Guy (Ryan Reynolds), his more generically shaped face points out just how much the other characters stand out from the usual animated landscape. Eep in particular has a winning physicality: brute Neanderthal strength refined into something more balletic and playful. She physically overpowers Guy, and he's smitten.

The animators also populate the movie's landscape with a stunning array of fantastical animal designs, eschewing natural evolution in favor of a surrealist prehistory featuring land-whales, giant saber-toothed kittens, and swarms of corpse-stripping bird-bugs. The movie's first big action sequence has the entire family racing around the landscape, competing with multiple species for a single precious egg, and the invention is dizzying. DreamWorks often specializes in these kinds of high-flying slapstick feats, but this one has a Looney Tunes choreographic wit beyond the imitation of action stunts.

The movie's craft extends beyond its aesthetics; it has heart similar to Dragon with, if anything, even less jokemongering and shameless kid-baiting. Sanders and his collaborator Kirk de Micco have better ears for human behavior and humor than many of their shtick-happy stablemates, and they know when to stay quieter and let the expressive animation handle character and humor. Even the oldest, lamest jokes, like the prehistoric sitcom mother-in-law cracks, have a dash of real-life mordancy (if Grug half-jokingly wishes her dead, well, fair enough: probably a cave woman living to a ripe old age places an unnatural burden on the family). The relationship between the cautious but brutish father and feisty daughter has real tenderness, well-voiced by Cage and Stone. (Catherine Keener and Clark Duke also do nice, understated work rounding out the family.)

The Croods does pile on at least one too many endings, and in the process shifts focus to Grug and shortchanges Eep, whose point of view dominates the first half of the movie (and recalls at first a very distant and non-princess ancestor of Brave's Merida). It would've been a kick to see the filmmakers further explore a non-parental point of view; as is, this isn't the still-mythical DreamWorks movie that will jump to the level of the best of (which is to say most of) Pixar's output. But with Sanders at the helm, new animated classics at least feel like a possibility on the horizon.

Opens March 22

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