“Never not be afraid” is the motto of the family of dysfunctional cavemen in Fox’s new animated film, but for a film that’s ostensibly about the fear of the unknown, The Croods sure feels familiar. Much like Fox's Ice Age films, actually, and this new film similarly has fun juxtaposing prehistoric reality with modern gags.* Along the way, it also presents a skin-deep meditation on the age-old conflict between brute force and brainpower and between terrified ignorance and rational thought. Lest you mistake any of it for social satire, however, the opening set piece gives us an extended game of caveman rugby involving the family stealing, and playing keep-away with, a giant egg while a variety of fantastical prehistoric creatures tries to take it from them — or, as they call it, “breakfast.”
The Croods, it turns out, aren’t exactly at the top of this particular food chain. Nor are they any great shakes in the brain department, either, as Eep, their rebellious daughter (voiced by Emma Stone), informs us in voice-over. This is a family that hunkers down in a dark cave at night and listens to dad Grug (Nicolas Cage) tell them the same story over and over again, about a girl who got curious and went out exploring one night: “She saw something new … and DIED!” is how the story ends, every time.
One day, however, Eep meets Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a young, enterprising dreamer with delicate features who looks down on cavemen and shies away from brute force and ignorance. Challenging Grug’s status as alpha male, Guy wows the family with fire and a variety of other newfangled creations, footwear among them. He also informs them that “the world is ending” — that is to say, earthquakes are peeling away the ground right beneath their feet, and lava is slowly consuming everything. Guy wants to head to higher ground — specifically, two very tall, Mormon temple–like mountains in the distance. Grug is reluctant, as this requires abandoning the terrifying comfort of their cave for the terrifying uncertainty of distant lands — quite a task for a family that instantly gathers into a kill circle at the first sign of trouble.
The Croods isn’t particularly smart, but it has just enough wit to keep us engaged and just enough speed to keep us from feeling restless. (Along with that opening rugbylike extravaganza, there’s also an elaborate climactic set piece involving a giant animal skeleton, a swarm of meat-eating piranha birds, and the world’s most adorable saber-toothed tiger.) Some of the visual gags are cute: At one point, a mishap in a field of giant corn leads to the world’s first fireworks display, not to mention a mountain of oversize popcorn. But there’s a surprisingly borscht belt tinge to much of the humor as well: One of the main reasons Grug finally agrees to their long trip into the unknown is because grandma (Cloris Leachman) says she’ll die if she has to leave, and the one-liners are oddly old-fashioned. (“I was in love. He was a hunter; I was a gatherer. We were quite the scandal.”)
These are easy-pickings humor-wise, and to its credit, The Croods picks them clean. The vocal talent is well cast, too: Cage in particular turns out to be quite perfect as the bewildered, adorably brutish Grug. But for a movie that’s all about using one’s mind, The Croods doesn’t exactly try too hard to impress us with its own brainpower. This is, after all, also a movie in which someone invents the hug.
* This review initially implied that Fox released the film instead of Dreamworks.