Skip to main content

No one said survival was fun.

The Croods
(2013)

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.


**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) (SPOILERS) I’m not sure you could really classify Shadow of a Doubt as underrated, as some have. Not when it’s widely reported as Hitchcock’s favourite of his films. Underseen might be a more apt sobriquet, since it rarely trips off the lips in the manner of his best-known pictures. Regardless of the best way to categorise it, it’s very easy to see why the director should have been so quick to recognise Shadow of a Doubt 's qualities, even if some of those qualities are somewhat atypical.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

I think you’re some kind of deviated prevert.

Dr. Strangelove  or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) (SPOILERS) Kubrick’s masterpiece satire of mutually-assured destruction. Or is it? Not the masterpiece bit, because that’s a given. Rather, is all it’s really about the threat of nuclear holocaust? While that’s obviously quite sufficient, all the director’s films are suggested to have, in popular alt-readings, something else going on under the hood, be it exposing the ways of Elite paedophilia ( Lolita , Eyes Wide Shut ), MKUltra programming ( A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket ), transhumanism and the threat of imminent AI overlords ( 2001: A Space Odyssey ), and most of the aforementioned and more besides (the all-purpose smorgasbord that is The Shining ). Even Barry Lyndon has been posited to exist in a post-reset-history world. Could Kubrick be talking about something else as well in Dr. Strangelove ?