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Berlin Review: Animated 'The Croods' Sacrifices Story & Character On Altar Of Impressive 3D Visuals

Festivals
by Jessica Kiang
February 15, 2013 2:00 PM
11 Comments
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The Croods

We suspect our reaction may be out of step with the general consensus of press at our Berlin Film Festival screening of the "The Croods" today, if the guffaws and applause were anything to go by, but really that had us kind of baffled. The DreamWorks film, from writer/directors Chris Sanders ("How to Train Your Dragon," "Lilo & Stitch") and Kirk Di Micco ("Space Chimps"), features a starry voice cast in Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman and Clark Duke, and an appropriately high concept: the Croods are a family of cavemen who have to evolve suddenly when faced with cataclysmic natural disasters and the arrival of a young Homo Sapiens with the ability to make fire.

But while the premise, with its roots in ancient human history, is quite promising, it doesn't appear to have been fertile enough for Sanders and DiMicco who elect to set most of it in an entirely fantastical past, populated with wonderfully rendered but completely fabricated animals and plant life, and characterized by impossible physics. This uneasy marriage of fantasy and prehistory meant that to us the film too often took the easy way out in both its humor -- slapstick, lots of boinging and boinking and hurtling across large spaces to crash into something and have another something land on top -- and its storyline. It's hard to invest in any stakes when we literally have no clue what deux ex machina exotic creature or seismic activity might be waiting around the next corner to change the odds all over again.

The Croods

Perhaps we have come to have such a high bar set for animation in recent years that we were simply expecting something that could surprise and dazzle us visually as much as this does here (the 3D is well worth it, for once), while at the same time adhering to internally coherent logical rules. Which is not to say it needs to be realistic -- in "Up" we were perfectly content with a world of talking dogs and flying houses, because of how subtly yet rigorously the parameters of that world were established and never broken. But in "The Croods" these rules are never set out, and with the goalposts constantly moving, we can't really invest in the group's quest at all.

The other casualty is the non-boing-bash-bang humor, which becomes somewhat rudderless because, lacking a recognizable framework to riff off, the central "Flinstones" anachronism -- in which the caveman family dynamic is comically similar to that of a modern family -- can't really gain much traction: they might as well be aliens. And with only Eep and Grug having any sort of personality aside from the purely one-note (the savage baby, the dim son, the nagging mother in law, the supportive nonentity wife) and a character design that teeters perilously close to ugly at times, the film overall lacked the sort of lovability we might expect, to the point of charmlessness.

The Croods

Eep (Stone) is a cavegirl/Neanderteen who, unlike the rest of her family, has an adventurous, questing spirit and a love of sunshine and light. This brings her into frequent conflict with her strong and protective but traditionalist father Grug (Cage), who believes the family should stay in the darkened cave as much as possible to avoid the various perils of outside life. Of course, this is that kind of animated world in which the concepts of "grounding" and "harpy mother-in-law" predate "shoes," but fine, ok, whatever. The narrative problems really arise when, after an extended gonzo opening that is very fast and very noisy and features the family hurtling around trying to steal an egg for sustenance, Eep sneaks out one evening and follows a burning cinder back to its source: a fire lit by Modern Man, in the form of Guy (Reynolds).

While it's never really explained where Guy came from or how he learned to make fire, or if there are any other of his kind around, he and Eep form a connection across (presumably) species, or at least evolutionary barriers, and he soon charms the rest of her family with his great ideas -- shoes for walking on rough surfaces, an animal/pet called "Belt" who holds up his pants, and a neat line in creating coquettish puppets to distract potential predators. All except Grug, of course, who has to come to terms with his daughter's crush and who feels increasingly marginalized by the adaptable and intelligent Guy, to the point of competing with him in a flat-out weird sequence in which Cage/Grug affects a bizarre accent and what looks like a rasta wig and invents sunglasses. But with an ill-defined series of earthquakes, explosions and landfalls having put paid to any possibility of life remaining the same, the family is forced to head with Guy towards some equally ill-defined safe place, which he calls "tomorrow," through a landscape of exotic and dangerous wildlife that seems to stem from some kind of really, really late Cambrian explosion. Why they will be safe there from the apocalyptic sundering of mountains and erupting of ash clouds is unclear, but it does make for some spectacular visuals.

The Croods

Perhaps younger children (or a very tired, end-of-festival crowd, if that's not too catty) will be amused enough by the day-glo fluorescent colors, fantastical landscapes and zany antics to not mind the lack of the kind of story coherence and more sophisticated humor we've come to expect from big-budget studio animation. As for us, although we found ourselves momentarily taken in by the emotional manipulation of the climax (Daddy issues, I guess), more lasting was the feeling of how unearned that was. Because though it's impressive in many technical and surface ways, "The Croods" lets us down on the essentials of character and story, and no amount of late-stage father/daughter bonding or vertiginous 3D cliffside tumbling can make up for that. [B-/C+]

"The Croods" opens March 22nd.

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11 Comments

  • MARVIN BR | March 17, 2013 4:59 PMReply

    Very well said. This critic is believed owner of reason. The fact that it has not pleased the film doesn't mean that those are a lot of tired, without other options of distraction. Demonstrating this critic is his hopeless and unlimited fanaticism to Pixar. I.e. just like many they still see this study as the only thing that can do buienas animated films, when this was lost long ago.

  • Chris Etrata | March 16, 2013 4:32 PMReply

    I saw this in a preview screening and it was just okay. Dreamworks could have done more to the plot and characters. Guy's life seems interesting but goes undeveloped. Humor is mostly for the kids.

  • Hank | March 12, 2013 11:22 PMReply

    The children's entertainment is an unentertaining, bombastic mess. The thin story is carried along by one flat gag after another, followed by unnecessary chase scenes and lots of loud sound. The unappealing character designs are limted in their expressions, which further limit the audiences ability to identify with them. And the "design" of the thing looks as if it were "committed" to death--with nary a shade left to the imagination. The non-stop camera work confuses rather than enhances the scenes--giving an already frenetic cartoon even less coherence. The special effects are nice overall, though I lament, with most others, the overly "realistic" effects that have infected this sort of film.

    Ultimately, however, it's the weak direction and screenwriting that doom this film to nothing but a time filler for the very youngest of children.

  • Chris Etrata | March 16, 2013 9:08 PM

    I felt the film couldn't decide whether its an emotional heartwarming drama or a loud comedy for kids. As a result, neither side fully develops, leading to it being uneven. As for Guy, he could have been interesting but they let him go undeveloped as a character.

  • Steve | February 16, 2013 12:31 AMReply

    Actually incredibly masterful world building, wonderfully relatable characters (with the exception of the peripheral family members, I'll grant you) and a simple, human story told in the allegorical terms of its caveman conceit, I thought. The rule of this world is set very clearly in fact: it is survivable if you adapt. That's the Nic Cage character's key lesson. The question isn't what deus ex machina is around the corner, but rather how will or won't its cast adapt to face what comes. In that it's perfectly consistent, and in that it allows itself a freedom to take its construct to some truly creative places (the swarming piranha birds a particular highlight).

    It's a little insulting to us to assume Berlinale critics are all too tired to notice what you've picked up on. I joined the festival only a couple of days before, and I adored the film. It could be, in fact, that because it doesn't match your ideal (a caveman film set in the real world, for whatever reason) you were just unwilling to go with it. But even before the story's catalyst - Guy's arrival - it lays its cards out with the flora and fauna it presents. Your argument essentially distils to 'film isn't different film,' which is a problem for you and not The Croods.

    I shan't argue that everyone else disagreeing with you is proof that you must be wrong - consensus criticism is the death of the art-form, even if you're willing to write off all those others' responses as by-products of fatigue - but I do suspect there's a snobbishness that comes with the company logo at the start of these sorts of films. Because Dreamworks has proven, with its recent output, that it has mastered the broad-strokes basics of films like these in a way Pixar seems to have lost. And yet some critics continue to praise Pixar's cynically-driven recent output as though it's the only word in animation. The Up comparison in your piece is telling in that regard, since the only common ground between the two is their animated approach. I'm making assumptions here, I know, but I do wonder, if you'd swapped the badges (but nothing else) on the last couple of years' output from both studios, whether responses like this would be so determinedly negative.

  • Marvin BR | March 17, 2013 5:01 PM

    Very well said. This critic is believed owner of reason. The fact that it has not pleased the film doesn't mean that those are a lot of tired, without other options of distraction. Demonstrating this critic is his hopeless and unlimited fanaticism to Pixar. I.e. just like many they still see this study as the only thing that can do buienas animated films, when this was lost long ago.

  • Joe | March 11, 2013 8:19 PM

    Well said.

  • Lou | February 16, 2013 7:13 AM

    Steve, I dared not mention the team-Pixar bit, but that's what I immediately thought upon reading the review. Let me add that the general (supercilious and affected) tone of the review is sooo irritating. Whoever enjoyed the film was either a simpleton or too tired to use ratiocination... What a cheek!

  • Lou | February 15, 2013 5:03 PMReply

    I am looking forward to this film. I find the characters extremely expressive. They have body weight, so to speak. In addition they do not have the flat, 'cardboard' texture and the slightly mechanical movements typical of animated films. The international critiques following the film presentation at Berlin are very positive indeed. People tend to forget that these films are targeted for children/early teens. It is hoped that parents accompanying them enjoy them as well but we should not expect that such films adhere strictly to reality or logic in order to satisfy adult spectators, and I am quite sure that 'sophisticated humour' is lost on children, however cultivated they may be. They are meant to entertain, be visually spectacular, stimulate fantasy and contain a bit of heart.

  • Marvin | March 6, 2013 7:21 PM

    Se ve que el film serà genial. Visualmente muy atractivo y la historia muy prometedora. Sin dudas una de las mejores apuestas animadas de este año.

  • Real | February 15, 2013 2:30 PMReply

    This looks so unappealing.

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