For all the riffs on innovation in nutty-Neanderthals comedy "The Croods" -- we witness the discovery of fire, shoes and, to wicked effect, the mother-in-law -- the CGI ‘toon ultimately has few original ideas behind its gently sloping forehead.
Unlike their relatively peerless competitors at Pixar (although to be fair, "Cars 2" and "Brave" lacked the usual magic), DreamWorks' animation gang rarely strives for art. They're often just as happy, and wealthy, forgoing bold storytelling and merely tweaking pop culture for a few laughs. Sometimes they strive for greatness ("Shrek," "Megamind"); most times, yawn ("Antz," "Bee Movie").
This one is somewhere in the middle. The first set piece of the "Croods" -- about a stone-age family trying to adapt to tectonic changes in the world and themselves -- nods to "Clash of the Titans" ("Release the baby!" is a repeated refrain when a ferocious toddler is loosed in the wilderness) and the slo-mo gridiron glory of NFL Films, in this case the leap for an egg dinner. It should be trying harder, sooner.
"The Croods" has scant interest in actual history (or dinosaurs, if you're expecting those). That's not necessarily a problem for such a frenetic, gags-aplenty comedy. I'm a "Flintstones" guy, and I'm pretty sure they didn't have drive-ins circa 2000 B.C. What is a problem, however, is that plot points are borrowed heavily from iconic material. The most egregious sources are "Avatar" (a fantastical fictional landscape awash in colorful beasties such as land whales, piranha birds) and the aforementioned "Brave" (a wild-haired lass alienates a bearish parent in her quest for teenly independence).
The been-there aftertaste is a shame, because "The Croods" does several things well. The energy is infectious, and if the animation doesn't have great textural feel (the 3-D is largely unnecessary), a couple of moments dazzle, including the first time the cave-dwellers see the stars.
The script by writer-director team Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders has several big chuckles, most notably the darkly comic running zingers between dad Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage, who's part Cro-Magnon anyway) and nagging Gran (a rambunctious Cloris Leachman). After every close call with a perilous circumstance, she taunts her son-in-law: "Still alive!"
Cage and Leachman are part of a stellar voice cast: Emma Stone (who, as angsty teen Eep, is incandescent even when unseen), Ryan Reynolds (as young hunky inventor Guy) and Clark Duke (as bone-headed brother Thunk). The best voice work, though, might be put in by co-director Sanders, whose wiseacre sloth Belt has a musical flair for the dramatic; my kids are still mimicking Belt's catchtune.
And although "The Croods" has lazy patches throughout, the conclusion is exciting and, lo and behold, surprising. When Thug sacrifices himself for his family -- he's not smart like Guy, but he's strong and finds himself ill-fated and alone -- the movie achieves a rare poignancy. And in the nick of time, Thug and "The Croods" display a burst of creativity. All it takes is a rock to the head and the courage to fly -- and, in a spectacular final scene, crash -- on their own.
"The Croods" is rated PG for much cartoon bludgeoning with rocks, eating gross things.