Skip past the lame title and weary Stone Age premise. “The Croods” is the first pleasant surprise of spring, a gorgeous kids’ cartoon with heart and wit, if not exactly a firm grasp of paleontology.
It’s about a family of cave men and women who have survived, unlike their neighbors, by minimizing risk. But risk is how we grow, how we better our lives and achieve great things. That’s just one of the things the Croods learn as their world turns upside down – literally. Earthquakes and volcanoes do tend to upend a neighborhood.
Daddy Grug, hilariously and sensitively voiced by Nicolas Cage, has just one motto, one he reinforces in their cave as he tells stories and animates his lessons on the cave wall: “Never be NOT afraid.”
His athletic daughter Eep (energetic Emma Stone) may bristle at that as she invents rock climbing, parkour and assorted other dangerous sports while exploring their limited world. But fear has kept them all – Grug, Eep, mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), lunky brother Thunk (Clark Duke), Gran (Cloris Leachman) and feral baby Sandy (Randy Thom) – alive.
They hide in their cave at night, huddled in a dog pile. They only go out to feed. An epic egg hunt (the creatures in their world have more to do with Dr. Seuss than Darwin) that opens the film shows what they have to go through just to eat. They basically invent football (and the way Fox Sports covers it) with this gonzo chase through the high desert.
But Eep has slipped out at night, lured by a strange light. Let’s call it “fire.” She’s also lured by the handsome lad who has fire. Let’s call him “Guy,” given a typical wry and sarcastic turn by Ryan Reynolds.
Guy has a sloth he’s tamed and uses as a belt, named “Belt.” He cooks. You know, because he has fire.
He’s got shoes. For your feet. Eep and Ugga go all Manolo Blahnik on those.
And Guy has a message, which everybody but Grug hears. “Our world is ending.” The earthquakes and eruptions mean they have to migrate, to move on, because “Tomorrow is a place where things are better.”
The big lug Grug thinks “Ideas are for weaklings,” but he comes around, inventing the “long, slow trip across the country” that will “bring us together, as a family.” Right.
The animation is first rate, even if the cutesy critters bear the hallmarks of co-director Chris Sanders’ “Lilo & Stitch” and “How to Train Your Dragon” – wide, round faces, big cuddly eyes.
Another Sanders touch? Emotion. For all the (mostly weak) wisecracks about Grug wishing his mother-in-law dead, “The Croods” has a warm sense of family, responsibility and letting Dad save face.
And the actors are, to a one, dazzling – getting across emotions and delivering this visual comedy’s verbal zingers with great timing. Cage, Stone and Keener are naturals at this sort of acting.
“The Croods” aren’t the Flintstones. But mercifully, they aren’t living in the Ice Age, either. That makes the movie about them a welcome 3-D cartoon, the first decent kids’ movie of the year.