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It can’t be overstated how gorgeous this movie is.

Walking into a Dreamworks animated movie, you’re never really sure if you’re going to get a Shrek or a Kung Fu Panda. In the last few years, Dreamworks Animation have risen to the challenge of Pixar’s lock on high quality, thematically and narratively satisfying animated films that are the definition of “fun for the whole family”. There have been a couple of times where they’ve handily beat Pixar’s usually incredible output with a much better, more original film. This is a studio that has matured and become willing to take chances, but they owe a lot to Pixar for blazing the trail and revolutionizing computer animated films as a (sort of) genre. It’s nice to have two major studios releasing movies like The Croods and Brave on an annual basis, isn’t it?

With The Croods, the focus is primarily on creativity itself. The prehistoric setting is just window-dressing to get a plethora of beautifully realized and ridiculous ideas. But it’s not just that, it’s also got loads of heart and wit and a pervasive sense of wonder. All of these elements are so fully in tune with the narrative that the impression is one of effortless mastery. The creativity in The Croods is enough to evoke awe in the audience, but what they’ve achieved in terms of sheer harmony is truly magnificent.

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The Croods is kind of post-apocalyptic actually!

The Croods are a family of cavemen who live in a ravine. They used to be surrounded by neighboring families, but one thing or another has killed them all off. This movie is often hilariously comfortable with the idea of death and jokes about death are made often. To keep the family alive and in line, patriarch Grug (Nicolas Cage) preaches a policy of fear and tradition and caves. Eep (Emma Stone) is his eldest daughter and she is at the age where freedom and thinking for herself matter a lot. This puts the two at odds and their relationship is the central one in the film.

Like a companion piece to last year’s underrated Brave, this is ultimately a movie about fathers and daughters. I can appreciate that on a personal level, having a daughter of my own, so I may be biased. I submit that it’s very well done here, especially given that fathers and daughters are a much more common thread than mothers and daughters in kids’ movies (probably because the industry is saturated by men writing/creating from personal experience). It helps that Eep is such a great character.

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Perhaps not as great as Belt. Just LOOK at him.

Eep is the kind of “strong female protagonist” I love to see and love to write about. Like Brave‘s Merida, Eep is brave, willful, and flawed. She’s not hugely flawed, just self-absorbed enough that she takes her family (especially her dad) for granted and has to learn to overcome that. Because so much of the focus is on Eep and Grug, the rest of the family aren’t as rounded out. They mostly provide comic relief and some sound-boarding for the conflicts in the film. They are all likable and charming which is all the movie really needs. Eep centers them and acts as the principle vehicle for the audience’s experience with the world of the movie. Her awe and excitement and curiosity are of a piece with ours. Grug gets the more developed character arc, which is a nice bit of sleight of hand from writer-directors Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco.

Also, trivia: John Cleese has a story credit on this movie. Is there anything that man can’t do?

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This is sort of a cat people kind of movie.

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is the character who counters Grug in the movie’s conflict between old and new, tradition and creativity, courage and fear. He’s a skinny plainsdweller who was brought up thinking that cavemen were all barbaric and backwards. He’s also a representative of the modern human, being more anatomically familiar than the ape-like Croods. He gets mixed up with them as the world begins to break apart around them. His influence on Eep (cuz they are mad crushing, yo) extends to the rest of the family and sets up the importance of taking chances and trying new things, which they take to much more naturally than Grug.

The end of the world is a metaphor for the uncertainty of the future. This theme is very strongly pushed by the movie and concludes that it takes the youthful to pull the elders into a newer world. I love that this movie says that both sides of the generation gap have to learn from each other. Grug inspires because of his dedication to his family and his selflessness, while Guy inspires even Grug with his creativity and lack of fear. Every chance it gets, the movie indulges some ridiculous outlandish solution to a problem. Like the hybrid animals (owlcat, turtlebird, etc!) and fantastical landscapes (like a coral reef in a desert), these inventions are all about blasting creativity in high concentration and reveling in that. I approve.

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The Croods creates several entire ecosystems of animals, plants, and terrain. It’s often familiar, think zoological mash-ups, and always stunning.

On a technical level, The Croods feels like a natural extension of How to Train Your Dragon. The virtual camerawork in The Croods is spectacular, especially in an early actions sequence that uses a classic physical comedy bit (the running chase/keepaway). There are shots in there that are staggering and are the first sign that whatever else, The Croods is part of the tradition of newer animated films that have learned to use the virtual camera in dynamic, heavily cinematic ways. Going hand in hand with what the movie does with lighting, texture detail, and other technical elements, the net result is noticeably streets ahead.

I think animation geeks will get a lot of out of The Croods. It’s a great example to show people if you want to demonstrate the technical and artistic grandeur that animation can attain. Not only that but it’s another in an elongating list of spectacular animated films that transcend the “that’s kiddie stuff” label occasionally used as a way for otherwise entertainment-hungry adults to dismiss the whole “genre”. There’s too much meat here to just wave it away.

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Another bit of trivia: Belt is voiced by Chris Sanders, who also voiced Stitch. Stitch is one of my favorite animated characters ever.

Some reviews of The Croods have focused on its message. Most of the time, you can spot a cynical kids movie review from a mile off just by that alone. You don’t often get the same kind of paternalistic attitude in criticism of adult movies. For live action movies, you hear about themes not “the message”. It’s as if movies like The Croods don’t have themes, they simply have a flimsy storyline painted onto a kid-oriented, simplistic moral/social lesson. Of course kids’ movies do tend to have simpler themes and tend to reinforce them more tangibly and obviously than do adult-oriented films. This is just practical. However, it’s possible to find complex themes that may be extracted into a more simple lesson. If you reduce The Croods to some kind of pedantic lesson for kids, it seems like the lesson is “don’t listen to your parents, take crazy risks, and cool shit will happen”. The Croods live in a dangerous world, and part of the movie is about Grug and Ugga (Catherine Keener) needing to give them space to explore it. Mostly, Grug needs to believe in his and his family’s ability to handle the danger and uncertainty of the world they no longer know. This is not “fuck wearing a helmet when you ride on a bike, go explore the world!”. The Croods is obviously using physical danger as a metaphor for other kinds of challenges that kids face and probably need to face by their own lights, hopefully with the love and support of a family. That’s the theme, when you really show this movie the respect it deserves.

This means that The Croods is refusing to be paternalistic. This is nice, but it sort of risks bugging the parents who, if conservative, will not like that this movie throws them under the bus. Family is of paramount importance to The Croods and I hope this isn’t missed by adults in the audience who may otherwise be put off by its focus on youth.

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I’m such a sucker for wonder as an emotional setup/payoff.

At the end of the day, though, it’s not like this is a new story. Coming of age movies typically feature some element of youth vs. age and often take the side of young people needing to forge their own identities and parents needing to learn to back off. The Croods does not reinvent the wheel, let alone invent it in the first place. But there’s nothing wrong with a familiar story well told and The Croods features interesting call-outs to modern anthropological science (homo sapiens on neanderthal lovin’? YOU TELL ME) and that ridiculous creative splurging I keep mentioning. Like I said earlier, this is a movie that works so well because it beautifully harmonizes all these different things.

Even if you don’t care about all the narratives and themes and sophisticated relationships and well-drawn character arcs that this movie has, go see it because it is fucking beautiful.

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On the outside and on the inside.

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