'The Croods'
'The Croods'

In the Oscar animation arena, competition is fierce. The conventional wisdom has $600-million global smash "Frozen," Disney's best princess musical since "Beauty and the Beast," leading the pack by a good distance. It just returned to number one again in its seventh week at the box office. 

Two old-fashioned 2-D stories, Hayao Miyazaki's historic "The Wind Rises" (which has been winning some critics prizes), and France's "Ernest & Celestine," should be among the Oscar final five. And Pixar sequel "Monsters University," which was nominated for ten Annie Awards and a PGA, will probably squeak in on sheer craftsmanship, if not storytelling, knocking out the year's animation blockbuster "Despicable Me 2" ($921 million worldwide) which appears statistically unlikely to land an Oscar nomination (although it did land a PGA) because unlike "Monsters Inc.," the original film did not.

"Frozen"'s strongest competitor comes from Jeffrey Katzenberg's DreamWorks Animation, which put together a formidable filmmaking partnership. Soon after he left Disney, Chris Sanders (Oscar-nominated "How to Train Your Dragon") joined up with Kirk De Micco ("Space Chimps") who had been developing "The Croods" for Aardman Animation as a stop-motion film with John Cleese (who retains story credit) before Aardman split with Glendale-based DreamWorks, which took over the movie. This spring "The Croods" grossed $573 million worldwide.

The Croods

Since "Shrek" collected the first animated feature Oscar in 2001, DreamWorks has scored one more, for Aardman's "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" (2005), while Disney/Pixar has taken home six (including Miyazaki's "Spirited Away") to Warner Bros.' one (George Miller's "Happy Feet"). 

I talked to the "Crood" writer-directors on the phone about how they created this clever caveman family comedy --with a strong, brave girl maverick (voiced by Emma Stone) at its center.

Anne Thompson: How did you come up with this high concept of a terrified family hiding in a cave who are forced out into the world?

Chris Sanders: This movie was more visual than anything we had previously worked on. Animated films never end up where they start. They develop and change along the way. We knew from the beginning the general nature of the world we were working with. We did a lot of storyboarding as well as writing to find the story. And music [composed by Alan Silvestri] would play a huge part in this. We knew the dialogue couldn't carry the big themes, so music was designed into the movie, houses for music and moments so that the largest turning points of the film could be spooled to by just music.

Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders of 'The Croods'
Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders of 'The Croods'

Kirk De Micco: We're both writer-directors, so we make our script knowing we'll service it later with the right visuals and music. The neat thing about animation: because you build animatics, we were able to share them with Alan early in the process, earlier than you'd ever do it in live action, when you have nothing to show until you shoot something. In fact, he started talking to us when were doing storyboards. That gave us the confidence to paint the family, knowing we'd build the themes. It's like doing a music scout while looking at the whole script animatic, where to lay in the moments along the way so that it hits when you need it and resonates with the audience. You can't start a big theme at the end, it's woven through from the beginning. Like reaching up for the sun, those themes are played through to the very end, the two images of light are the bookends of that story arc.

When did you see that these basic caveman family fears and need for growth might tap into a global universality? 

Sanders: We didn't realize, because we work on these things in a very intimate way. We don't think about the larger implications. In the case of this original story we had the ability to let the movie take us where it wanted to go. The direction it took on its own was this profound journey to answer questions of human existence. It happened that the Croods exist without any sort of trappings of society, cars, jobs, schools, telephones. Nothing around them places them anywhere. We didn't realize you've stripped everything away and gotten down to people period. It's just a family. When we relieve them of all distractions you get down to big questions: father-daughter relationships, larger themes of why are we here? That was the thing that Kirk and I had discovered within just weeks after I started on the film.

De Micco: When I started with John Cleese, it was more of a buddy comedy. The theme of fear of change was being played out. But when Chris was shown all the projects at studio, he liked the Caveman movie.

Sanders: There are two types of movies I'll always take: one about a submarine or a caveman, they're just appealing at a universal level of elemental existence. One thing I discovered that was amazing as I dived into the film was the joy of working with cavemen. These people don't have any guile, they can get upset and act like a child with no social filters. We look at them as children.