Chris Sanders has built himself quite a name in the world of Hollywood animation. Originally a writer at Disney, Sanders name can be found on the scripts to some of Disney Second Golden Age classics including The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan. He soon made his directorial debut at the studio with the often forgotten gem Lilo & Stitch. As well as supplying the voice to its alien lead, Sanders proved to be an assured hand at crafting a unique, funny and emotionally driven kids movie that could touch all demographics. But he really hit it out of the park when he switched studios to Dreamworks Animation and directed one of the best animated movies of the last 10 years; How to Train Your Dragon. So now of course, whenever his name is attached to a new animated movie, it is something to get excited about. And with The Croods, Sanders not only cements his position as one of the best animation directors out there, but one who is not afraid to look to his medium’s past and crafting something that may not seem particularly original, but is alive with kinetic energy, well written characters and brilliant design.
Set at the cusp of a major tectonic movement that is due to completely reshape the world as its prehistoric inhabitants know it, the film follows a cave-man family called The Croods. Led by father and husband Grug (Nicolas Cage), the family consists of mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), Gran (Cloris Leachman), young son Thunk (Clark Duke), wild baby Sandy and teenage rebel Eep (Emma Stone). Bored and restricted by her father’s ‘fear everything’ philosophy, Eep longs to leave the stifling confines of her family’s cave and explore what is beyond their boulder archway. Her wishes are answered with the arrival of Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a lone wandering man of ideas; he has created fire, shoes, umbrellas and a belt out of a sidekick sloth, aptly named Sloth. Guy also brings with him a terrible premonition that the world is going to end, and that the only chance of survival is to head for high ground. Soon Eep and her family find themselves on a journey with Guy to find a new home and a new Tomorrow, much to the dismay of the very much set in his ways Grug.
The Croods follows a stone-age family. Which we have seen before (The Flintstones, durr). It also concerns itself with a prehistoric period and its vast array of creatures. Ala Ice Age. Yet there is something about The Croods that stops it from feeling like well worn material. The family dynamic is once again well covered territory, but the characters interactions and the lively voice work from its talented and seemingly tightly knitted voice cast. Unconventionally for a kids movie, the lead characters are not all that pleasing to look at, which is rather refreshing in some respects. Much of the beauty is reserved for the landscapes, which truly are wonderfully detailed and vibrant with life. The cuteness factor is also resided to the furry critters that occupy the film; from the charming sloth Belt to the adorable saber-tooth tiger.
What truly sets The Croods apart from the rest of the pack is in its inventiveness and design. Some of the action sequences within this film are absolutely breath-taking. One very early sequence sets a benchmark quite high for the rest of the movie (a benchmark, I would argue, it fails to reach again). The sequence in question is an early chase sequence as the family work together to score some breakfast. It is fast moving, inventive and a brilliant introduction to each member of the family, highlighting their individual personalities and unique contributions to the family dynamic, all the while coupled with a spirited score from Alan Silvestri. The rest of the film certainly strives to hit the kinetic energy of this opening sequence, but it never quite gets there. Where it does lack in kinetic energy it does certainly make up for in inventiveness within its designs and environment. The character animation is rather crude and basic, but the environments and its creatures come to glorious life throughout, from the Piranha-Birds to the forests of this exotic prehistoric world.
The family dynamic cannot escape the cliches that it plays so closely too, and there is very much a sense that this is how The Flintstones might have played out in our contemporary media. But there is also the sense that Sanders and fellow director Kirk DeMicco (Racing Stripes… yeah, not as good a pedigree), are very aware of that fact and play with that idea. The rough cut characters evoke the look of the Bedrock inhabitants, yet there is enough difference within the personalities of the family that allows The Croods to stand as their own memorable prehistoric family.
Though the narrative holds no surprises, the film warmly wraps you up within its world and takes you for a joyous ride that you almost lose your knowledge of cliched narrative expectations. It is not up there with the likes of How to Train Your Dragon, that film resides in a much higher league of inventive story telling coupled with amazing visuals and characterization to match. But The Croods most certainly holds its own in a crowded catalogue of animated movies, seemingly coming out of nowhere to provide easy thrills, sweet characters and a collection of cute and loveable creatures. It is also another example of Dreamworks beginning to take the lead in much more accomplished animated pictures. You better hope Monsters University is good chaps, because I think someone is starting to over-take you. And they are being lead by Mr. Sanders.