Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Movie Review: The Croods
The Croods is a movie that is both better than expected yet still disappointing which are two things one cannot often say about the same film. On the one hand it has all of the studio Dreamworks' worst habits on display, a fact which was made pretty clear by the marketing. On the other hand, it shows some surprising awareness as to the vast potential of its own premise; never enough to take advantage of it, but enough to come frustratingly close to greatness. It's just good enough to make you wish it was better.
The setup feels not unlike a spiritual prequel to The Flintstones. The titular Croods family are cavemen who already embody well-worn sitcom archetypes (overcompensating Dad, voice-of-reason Mom, rebellious teenage daughter, dopey overweight brother, hellraiser baby, and pain-in-the-ass live-in Grandmother) but haven't yet learned to bend the laws of reality in order to turn assorted rocks and foliage into working facsimiles of modern household objects (which they sort've do over course of the film). After loosing their isolated cave home to a rockslide, the sheltered & timid Croods must overcome their fear of change in order to survive. They are aided in this quest by an uncommonly progressive caveman named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who believes the world is ending and is seeking higher ground in order to weather the apocalypse.
Like the depressing majority of children's fare these days, the film does not think much of its audiences' attention span. The film devolves into a dazzling roller coaster ride at every opportunity. Our cavemen heroes barely have two seconds to sit still before they're once again running & leaping at breakneck speeds from this or that peril, bouncing off of obstacles and finding unlikely ways to catapult themselves through the air. It's certainly a spectacle to watch and makes effective use of the 3D, but it becomes rather predictable after a while and it's hard not to notice that it's all just filler for a film that either can't or won't make good use of its story material.
And therein lies the disappointment, because story material there is, and damn promising material at that. The film revolves around the basic theme of fear of change. The Croods were long ago scarred into the caves after witnessing the perils of prehistoric earth pick off their neighbors one by one: predators, natural disasters, disease, etc. In order to survive, the family matriarch, Grug (Nicolas Cage), has sheltered his family in a cave which they venture out of only briefly during daylight for food, and never stray further than is necessary. They are surviving, but stagnating, afraid to leave or explore, or do anything to improve their rather pitiful lot in life. Only the coming of age daughter, Eep (Emma Stone) seems discontent with this, and it is she that drags her family kicking and screaming down the painful road of change, with help from Guy of course. It's a simplistic but timeless theme in a story that is at times genuine and effectively told.
But I can't help but notice how much better it could've been told. Of course Dreamworks' usual inclusion of pop culture references is annoying, but it rather beside the point and not as intrusive this time around at any rate. What I'm referring to is the rather obvious but unconventional and underused presentation style they might've gone with. Obviously it's futile to complain about the logic of a group of cavepeople so primitive they haven't even discovered fire yet speaking perfect English to one another. That's simply the way the film chose to go, and it's consistent and competently integrated so I can hardly complain. But I can't help but imagine the possibilities if they'd taken a slightly more realistic approach. Imagine the film completely free of dialogue, the characters communicating only in grunts, gestures, and facial expressions. Kids are more understanding of nonverbal communication than adults give them credit for. The fear is that it won't hold their interest, but in fact it often holds their interest better than it does adults. After all it wasn't that long ago for them that they themselves communicated without words. This fact was partially exploited to great success in the first act of WALL-E & in the sadly forgotten Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Imagine if The Croods, had played itself as more of a feature length segment of Fantasia, with purely visual storytelling, epic musical scores and grandiose visuals. The film is already mostly a sight-seeing tour, with most of the effort going into the admittedly majestic scenery, populated by creatively designed creatures of hypothetical evolutionary turns. With the excellent score by Alan Silvestri backing it up, the film is often a marvel to look at, and I just feel that the wonder of it all is being diluted by the so-so presentation of the narrative.
And the narrative itself is not without its problems, more specifically the fact that it's never quite clear who the protagonist is supposed to be. At first it seems to be Eep, who's Disney princess-esque desire to escape her dull home life is the impetus for the action. But sometime during the second act, Grug abruptly hijacks the film from his daughter and suddenly it's his feelings of inadequacy driving the plot.
At the end of the day the film is a satisfactory diversion that stinks of a wasted opportunity. What is more primal and universal among humanity than our desire to explore, and the need to keep moving forward? Even as kids we understand that, and done right, this film's account of the beginning of civilization could've been the first transcendent children' movie since Where the Wild Things Are. But I can only review the movie in front of me, not the one I wish was in front of me. So in summary: Your kids could do worse, but they could also do a hell of a lot better.