DreamWorks’ increasingly wonky animations, in terms of both quality and box office, are getting so that even Jeffrey Katzenberg has to admit they’re a bit shonky. Still, he’s able to put on a brace face as the studio looks likely to get a major shot in the arm with the release of How to Train Your Dragon 2 (we’re talking Despicable Me 2 and Shrek 2 gains on a first outing here). But how long they can sustain themselves with a reliance on sequels for coffers nourishment is debatable. If Turbo screwed the pooch then The Croods did surprisingly decent business, making the most of an uncrowded March 2013 release date. Its success does rather make the case of undiscerning adults eager to take their kids to see something, anything, just to keep them quiet for 90 minutes, since the movie is a desperately middling affair; something of an Ice Age clone (a trek to safety as the environment changes) but with humans (well, Homo Neanderthalensis and a Cro-Magnon). And replete with every join-the-dots element the frankly lazy studio can muster. And a really crappy title. If the titular family had been farting, belching and making vile gestures throughout the movie, there might have been a decent pun in there.
The “Never not be afraid” starting point isn’t an okayish one; a family holed up in their cave save for occasional excursions to get hold of a bite to eat. It would have been a whole lot better if it had developed an even slightly subversive theme, though. Emma Stone as the chunky but not especially beetle-browed Eep is your standard issue rebellious teenager, and Nicolas Cage is the typically over-protective but well-meaning dad (in this case not so bright either). Both make an impression, performance-wise, but Catherine Keener as wife Ugga barely gets a look in. There’s a Les Dawson-esque running gag involving Grug’s wish for his mother-in-law to expire (Cloris Leachman as Gran) that kind of works because it’s so retro (definitely one for the parents; grandparents, even). When Guy arrives, Ryan Reynolds voicing a noticeably smarter semi-alpha male (albeit afraid of the dark), Eep is smitten and Grug threatened. So you can see the trajectory from there; Grug’s emotional journey etc. towards acceptance and proving his patriarchal beneficence.
Of the two directors, the influence of Space Chimps’ (doh!) Kirk De Micco is felt more strongly than How to Train Your Dragon’s Chris Sanders. The picture has a varied history, starting out with an attempt by DeMicco and John Cleese (there’s nothing discernably Cleesey here, in his first movie writing credit since Fierce Creatures; those post-divorce bills must still be biting hard) to adapt The Twits which then segued into a caveman story Sanders picked up. Then DeMicco joined again as co-director. All of which is more interesting than the movie itself. Lacking a sufficiently interesting cast of characters, and with bland design work (airbrushed ape men is about the size of it; too audience-friendly to go the full ugly, the family ends up with sporting the alarming combination of thickset and large-eyed features), it’s left to the whacked out incidental pleasures to sporadically raise a smile.
If nothing else, DreamWorks can be relied on to provide, amongst the carefully rehashed plot beats, some genuinely mirthful detours. If Guy’s pet sloth Belt is your over-familiar kooky weirdo animal sidekick, the scene in which the Croods first encounter fire (“Try hiding from it in the tall grass”) is satisfyingly undiluted (one have expected a careful instruction that the little ones not play with the stuff). The Stone Age-modern inventions are too sub-Flintstones clever-cute, in that “everything’s one long sugar rush pop video action montage” way these animations have a habit of becoming, but there’s some inspired lunacy involving puppet birds and (later) a puppet sabre tooth tiger that wouldn’t look so out of place in a Looney Tunes.
Those moments of inventiveness are a reminder of the better moments in the Madagascar trilogy, which at least had memorably distinctive lead characters when all fell down in the plot department. The Croods has no such luck, yet the picture has clearly made enough to have a sequel scheduled. One can expect second tier business along the lines of Fox’s Rio, as this is far behind the quality of How to Train Your Dragon, or even the “it says it right there in the title” Kung Fu Panda (how they can get a third of those made, when the second was virtually indistinguishable from the first, is beyond me). It’s a shame the studio’s ideas have become so tepid, and each underperformer makes them even less adventurous (Mr. Peabody & Sherman had an arresting idea and origins, but fed through the studio blender comes out looking much the same as anything else; Rise of the Guardians looked good as a premise but suffered from utterly banal plotting). Alternating (semi-) original fare with sequels is probably a (relatively) wise financial move – even Pixar has lost it’s creative backbone, so one can hardly have a go at their always less artistic rival – but it’s four years since DreamWorks last made a great movie. And, apart from a sequel to that movie, they don’t look like they’re going to buck their self-imposed trend any time soon.