Review | <i>The Croods</i>

DreamWorks Animation’s The Croods is a delightful family film and a visual feast for those prepared to deal with the loud first 10 or so minutes. Beyond that, co-director Chris Sanders reward viewers, both young and old, with a marvelous color palette, great characters and a charming story.

Sometime during the era of the super-continents, a young cavegirl named Eep helps her family forage for food on the one day a week they're allowed to see daylight. At all other times, Eep's father Grug keeps them in a small, dark cave and tells them stories about disobedient animals who try to learn about new things and end up dead. That doesn't stop Eep when, one night, she sees a light near the cave. Leaving to find it, she meets Guy, a more evolved man who isn’t afraid of ideas. Unfortunately, Guy arrives with a warning: The world is ending (cue dramatic music courtesy of Guy's sidekick, a monkey named Belt). When the Croods discover Guy is correct, they begin a journey to a distant mountain in hopes of salvation.

That setup comes with a front-loading of a lot of DreamWorks storytelling and character tics that I generally find aggravating. For one, everything is loud: From the volume of the soundtrack to the tone of hunting to Eep's first interaction with Guy, everything is unrelenting in a way that’s supposed to grab viewers by the collars and get them invested. It can kill an animated film, but The Croods utilizes that well to set up the fantastic counter-point when the family sees the world beyond their cave for the first time. It’s a quieter, breathtaking moment and establishes the tone of the film. That said, be prepared for five to 10 minutes that will leave you uncertain.

Once past that mark, the film opens up. Although Sanders shares directing credit with Kirk DeMicco, The Croods clearly comes from his sketchbook. The top-heavy character designs, absurd melding of animals into exotic and adorable creatures, and even the color choices all reflect the same mind that gave us Lilo & Stitch. Seeing his style in computer animation and 3D is something of a revelation; it translates surprisingly well. Going in, I was unsure whether computers could do Sanders’ art justice, as anyone who has tracked down his sketchbooks or his on webcomic Kiskaloo know he has a bold graphic look that could easily be whittled down by the realities of CG animation. While his pencils are definitely toned down in the final character models, it’s still a happy medium, as they retain the spirit of his designs and move with great precision and flare.

Beyond their appearance, the characters quickly become favorites. Eep's thirst for adventure is truly endearing, as is Grug's need to keep his family safe. Although the two characters are often at odds, Eep is generally proud of her family once they're introduced to Guy -- it's one of my favorite elements of the film. Instead of a cynical Lisa Simpson-type persona, Eep is happy to have everyone she loves along for the trip. Even when their ways confuse Guy, she offers a chipper smile and joins in.

The balance of power changes somewhat as Guy's new ideas thrill everyone except Grug. That sense of discovery is palpable and makes for truly great sequences and visuals.

Grug is voiced by Nicolas Cage in what might be his best legitimate performance in a decade; I actually forgot it was the actor for large swaths of the film. The character does have a slow-burn Cage-out at one point, giving Grug that laconic Elvis impersonation the actor sometimes leans on, but it works in that situation. And, really, if you don't watch Cage's films all that often, it won't pull you out of the movie. At the same time, his vocal performance carries most of the emotional core of the film as the character grows fearful of Eep not just leaving the cave, but growing up.

Opposite Cage is Emma Stone as Eep. Her natural smoky tone is a fine compliment to the character's look. While the actress' persona is often cynical and cheeky, she plays Eep with earnestness and the occasional growl of caveman aggression. As with Cage, you forget it's Stone after a time and just enjoy Eep.

In fact, the entire voice cast -- Ryan Reynolds as Guy, Katherine Keener as Crood mother Ugga, Cloris Leachman as Gran, and Clark Duke as son Thunk -- deliver performances that rival the best Pixar features in their overall lack of showiness. The actors disappear into their roles and give the family dynamic a lot of authenticity. As it's doubtful the cast ever worked together, that's quite a feat.

Beyond the human characters, the world of The Croods is populated by a menagerie of strange, wonderful creatures, from strangely colored monkeys and man-eating parrot-like birds to vicious giant turkey-things and something that resembles a humpback whale with stubby feet. A key animal is a large saber-toothed kitten that chases the Croods across the world, but chances are that every kid will find him absolutely adorable.

With marvelous characters, beautiful world and creature designs, and a charming story with plenty of great chase and action scenes, The Croods is one of the better family film experiences in recent memory. While it will definitely keep the kids entertained -- the test-kid I brought to the screening loved it so much she forgot I had presents for her to open after the movie – it will also offer plenty for grown-ups with its classy animation, sophisticated style and genuinely touching family dynamics.

The Croods opens Friday.

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