Surprisingly clever, fast-paced but smart enough to pause for a touching family moment or two, “The Croods” is an evolutionary leap beyond the similarly themed “Ice Age” series. In both story lines our prehistoric heroes must race to safety while volcanoes and earthquakes wreck their environment.
“The Croods,” from a story by John Cleese, takes the idea further, higher and deeper, making it a charmingly human comedy while retaining the hyperkinetic physical humor that made “Ice Age” a kiddie juggernaut. It’s the kind of rib-tickling, emotionally satisfying, universally appealing effort that gives computer animation a good name.
The voice cast for this caveman farce is wonderful. Emma Stone plays independent adolescent Eep Crood with her trademark velvet rasp, introducing us to her world, where sudden death is all around. Predators, mosquitoes and even the common cold have struck down so many neighbors that her protective dad Grug insists that his clan stay in the safety of their cave all day long. The fact that Grug is played with neurotic helicopter-parent inflections and modern cadences by Nicolas Cage amplifies the humor of every line by a factor of 10.
No teen wants to be cooped up with her mother (Catherine Keener), idiot brother (Clark Duke) and grandma (Cloris Leachman), so Eep sneaks outside to follow a bright thing she has spied. It’s fire, wielded by a brainy explorer named Guy (Ryan Reynolds.) Eep develops an instant, intense crush.
Hidebound but well-meaning, Grug is resistant to change (his credo is “Never not be afraid”). He opposes the match. When an earthquake obliterates the cave, they have no choice but to fall in, squabbling, behind the new guy.
The new habitat is a glorious menagerie of evolutionary misfires: ingeniously conceived parrot piranhas, crocodile dogs, flying turtles and huge sabertoothed kittens. The intensely detailed creature design and psychedelic plant life are like an “Avatar” gag reel. And they look amazing. Here, as on “Wall-E” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” ace cinematographer Roger Deakins serves as a visual consultant.
This emphasis on Seussian misfires of natural selection is fun in itself, but also illustrates the story’s theme. It advances the main idea, that our lives, our children, families and cherished beliefs all have to change over time in the face of new challenges.
Grug begins to feel his time is past as Guy thinks his way through challenges that Grug’s head-on physical approach can’t resolve. The pair learn to work together, however, in a dilemma that requires them to escape from a tar pit by means of a puppet show. In a rather brilliant twist, Guy’s work with the dummy doesn’t produce the desired effect. When Grug takes control of the makeshift marionette, delivering a typically over-the-top Nicolas Cage performance, he saves the day. Maybe I have seen a better joke than that in a cartoon at some point, but I don’t remember it.