"The Croods"
"The Croods"

You couldn't find a more apt movie to sum up DreamWorks Animation at the moment than "The Croods" (March 22), the prehistoric road trip adventure about embracing change as a survival strategy when the world turns terribly hostile. After last year's box office misfire with "Rise of the Guardians," which resulted in a $165 million write-off, layoffs, and schedule reshuffle, DreamWorks is definitely in transition. 

On the plus side, there's a new distribution deal with Fox, which gives DreamWorks greater control of marketing while it right-sizes its ambitious animation enterprise, searching for the next hit and potentially the next franchise. What that will ultimately mean creatively remains to be seen. But, as Nicolas Cage's Grug learns in "The Croods," now's not the time to suddenly become risk-averse.

In the meantime, "The Croods" should put DreamWorks back on track commercially. It's a fast, fun and funny journey with something on its mind that we can all relate to in these precarious times: a dysfunctional family that learns to stick together and adapt or die. It's as stunningly naturalistic as anything DreamWorks has ever animated. And the voice casting is spot on with Cage as the stubborn dad whose old school mentality just won't cut it anymore; Ryan Reynolds as the free spirit with a bold new vision for a better tomorrow; and Emma Stone as the daughter caught in a tug-of-war between the two. 

Bottom line: while it lacks the gravitas of "How to Train Your Dragon," it's a lot more substantial than "Madagascar." I certainly don't agree with the trade reviews that it's too kid friendly: I think parents will respond to its storytelling and humor, though arguably greater emphasis on the romance between Reynolds and Stone might have given it more date night appeal. But then it might have veered off into a whole other movie.

Fortunately, directors Kirk DeMicco (who scripted "Quest for Camelot") and Chris Sanders ("How to Train Your Dragon") strike the right balance. Of course, it took long enough. The project began in 2005 as a stop-motion vehicle, "Crood Awakening," co-written by DeMicco and John Cleese when DreamWorks was still partnered with Aardman. But a year later they broke up and the project didn't get back on track until 2007 when Sanders left Disney. They retooled for a year until Sanders departed for "Dragon." But when he returned in 2009 after his crash course in CG, they found the right hook as a family-oriented adventure rather than a "Midnight Run" conceit.