The Croods live in a cave. That should be too surprising, considering that they are cave people. But beyond just living in the cave, they define their entire lives by it. The last surviving family of Neanderthals in the valley, the Croods spend almost all of their time in the cave, emerging only to hunt for food. The cave has kept them safe, as have the rules implemented by Grug (Nicolas Cage), the father of the family. Inside the cave live Grug and his wife, Grug’s mother-in-law and the three kids. Eep (Emma Stone), the oldest child, hates the rules, the cave, and her family, and longs to explore new things, in contradiction to her father’s mantra, “New is always bad. Never not be afraid.”
Eep is the sort of person who stays out until the last possible minute, chasing the sun as it sets. One night, a light from outside the cave attracts her attention, and she goes outside and encounters Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a more evolved form of human, who is unlike anything she’s ever seen before. Guy can make fire and has ideas, wears a sloth around his waist that he calls “Belt,” and warns Eep that the world is ending. Before you know it, he turns out to be correct and the cave is destroyed by some sort of tectonic event, forcing the Croods out into the world. The Croods quickly discover that their rules don’t mean much outside the cave, and they are forced to team up with Guy in a trek to find somewhere safe.
Chris Sanders (one of the writers/directors) brings a lot of the style and humor he showed in Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon to The Croods. Belt (voiced by Sanders) is particularly hilarious. Much of the film’s humor comes from the family dynamic. Grug can’t wait for his elderly mother-in-law (Cloris Leachman) to die, and she takes particular glee in calling out to him, “Still alive,” and criticizing him at every turn. The baby of the family, who doesn’t talk, acts more like a rabid dog, and is often set loose on the hunt with the cry of, “Release the baby!”
The driving force of the story, though, is the relationship between Grug and Eep, and it’s one that anyone who was ever a teenager can relate to. Grug doesn’t realize that his girl has grown up and needs her space, and Eep can’t see that Grug’s actions are out of the best intentions and attempts to keep everyone safe. Through it all they just don’t see how alike they are. It’s all fairly standard fare for a movie of this sort (particularly as a companion for Sanders’ other movies), but it’s never heavy handed. In fact, its lessons are less for the kids in the audience and more for the adults, which I’ll discuss further down in the analysis section of this review.
The film is pretty to look at, as we’ve come to expect from these sorts of movies by now. It gives us a prehistoric world as it might be drawn by a child, full of interesting and colorful mashups of extinct animals that are nowhere close to believable but still fit well with the setting. The movie relies a lot on slapstick, which may make it a bit juvenile for some people, but it’s never annoying and is often very funny. There’s a great scene in the opening, where the Croods are competing with the local wildlife over an egg for dinner, that’s like an extended football play, even down to the camera angles and focus techniques which mirror Sunday afternoon games. Alan Silvestri (one of my favorite film composers) gives us a solid and enjoyable score.
The voice cast all do admirable jobs, getting the most out of what they’re given. Cage in particular makes a convincing caveman while seemingly not stepping too far out of his typical performances. I guess he’s always been part caveman, which is not meant as an insult. He also gives Grug a real sense of internal struggle, showing us a (proto)man trying to come to grips with his place in a changing world.
The Croods is a fun bit of fluff, with good humor, an entertaining story, and a good voice cast. Even if it’s not the most original or brilliant film, it’s still very enjoyable.
The Croods actually has a lot in common with Brave, last year’s Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature. Both films tell a story about the relationship rebellious teens and their parents and metaphorically about the way we deal with traditions and new things. Brave took a middle-of-the-road sort of approach, having Merida and her mother grow to understand each other and appreciate the other side’s viewpoints, with the key lesson being one of compromise. (My only real complaint about Brave, which I generally loved, was that it played things too safe with its lesson.) The Croods, on the other hand, offers a fairly decisive view of traditions and conservatism, and it’s not a particularly favorable one (which is somewhat similar to Tangled).
Grug, the father, has complete rule over the family. He instructs their every move, and his instructions are based on years of tradition, traditions that have kept them alive when all of the other families were killed by the wild. When Guy shows up, with his new ideas of things like fire, shoes and the like, Grug feels threatened. As his mantra goes, “New is always bad. Never not be afraid.” When the Croods are out on their own, Grug realizes he can’t protect them, and it’s only Guy showing up with fire that saves the family.
The Croods is the story of how man must deal with the changing world, and how the new can be both scary and wonderful. When Grug realizes that his ways are no longer valid he becomes sulky and defiant, and then tries to emulate Guy, acting like he is full of ideas, when all of his ideas just end badly. Grug is metaphorically left behind, not only due to his lack of ability to evolve to the new circumstances, but also by his unwillingness to. Grug is almost a stereotype. We can see that he has the best of intentions, particularly given the hostile environment of The Croods, but he’s smothering his family. Take for instance, this exchange with his daughter:
Eep: Dad, you have to stop worrying about us.
Grug: But it’s my job to worry! It’s my job to follow our traditions.
Eep: Those traditions don’t work out here.
Grug: They’ve been keeping us alive.
Eep: That was not LIVING! It was “Not Dying”! There’s a difference.
Where The Croods really shines, and is probably controversial to some people, is that instead of Eep and Grug realizing that they need to meet in the middle, in the end Grug realizes that he has to accept the new world and find a way to be useful in it. It’s the sort of lesson that I could see a talking head railing about on Fox News, calling it an attack on conservative values (though people probably will say I’m crazy for reading politics into The Croods). Grug’s way of life really is dead by the end of the movie, and he’s forced to embrace a new way of life.
While that all might seem unacceptable to some people, in fact Grug’s life, and his family’s, is much better in the new world than it was in the old. They now get to live, instead of just “not die.” There’s a great scene in the film where the characters all get separated. Eep and Guy (and Belt) are together, and find their way out of the maze-like area they’re in without trouble. Grug’s wife, Ugga, his mother-in-law and the baby are trapped by carnivorous plants but come up with an idea and safely make their way through, not content to just hide. Even the dim-witted middle child, Thunk, makes friends with a wild animal, and successfully finds his way out of the maze. Only Grug is left behind, desperate to find his family and afraid that they are alone, but running in circles without a plan. Ugga eventually has to go back and rescue him.
In the end, Grug learns that he has skills that can still be of use in the new world, if he will simply abandon his stubbornness, and Eep learns that his controlling choices were made from a place of love, even if they weren’t always the right choices. Grug survives by embracing progress, altering his way of thinking, having new ideas and surrendering his fear of change. It’s the sort of thinking that brings families together, instead of trying to force them together. The Croods is not shy with its stance on this issue, and Grug’s path forward is very clear.
It’s a surprisingly bold move for a family film, particularly one designed with mainstream appeal. It’s not really comparable to ParaNorman’s inclusion of a gay character, because that was an independent and intentionally counter-culture film, and the controversial moment is just a throwaway line at the end (though I’m still proud of them for including it). The Croods’s message is integral to its plot, and impossible to separate from the film. The film is never cruel or derogatory towards Grug’s views or his fate, and presents his change as character growth, not as something he is forced into. It may be obvious with its message, but it’s not harsh with it. I may have found the film enjoyable but unremarkable, but I have to give the filmmakers full credit for being bold in this other way.