Stoopid title. Sweet movie. And not the crack-your-teeth, cloying kind of sweet: DreamWorks Animation’s The Croods is a spirited and eye-popping stealth charmer.
Pulling from the same well of revisionist (pre)history as the death-rattling Ice Age franchise, The Croods tracks the title’s family of “crude” cave dwellers, who struggle to stay alive after the elements have claimed their Neanderthal neighbors. Dad Grug (voiced by Cage) is a nervous nelly swathed in a strongman’s musculature, preaching safety first, second, and certainly last; curiosity is strictly a dirty word to him. (The antics-prone Cage is a counterintuitive but inspired choice to voice the shadow-scared Grug.) “Stop looking for things!” he wails at his oldest daughter, Eep (Stone, reliably feisty), who itches to explore the world at large. Soon enough, with the Earth fracturing around them in a continental-drift doomsday scenario, the whole clan is forced to leave the cave’s safe haven and follow Eep into the new world.
That world is a riot of color and gonzo imagining, as if the animators took their cue from a kindergarten class land-grabbing at a Crayola box, delighted to imagine “what might have been” (e.g., flying turtles) and utterly untroubled by “what actually was.” The script may be chockablock with animation tropes – surely we’ve seen before (from the Ice Age pictures, in fact) fathers and daughters butting heads, old crones cracking cantankerous yet wise, and animal sidekicks schooled in vaudeville – but resetting those tropes in an environment this pulsating with surprise visuals makes so much staleness seem fresh again.
Gravity-defying acrobatics are standard operating procedure in cartoons – no matter how many times he topples off a cliff, Wile E. Coyote always bounces back – but there’s something special about Eep and her indefatigable athleticism. Her fierceness is dizzying.
Eep is a rare invention. She’s a hero, no doubt about it, but not the kind contemporary animation typically conjures. Yep, some of us are still smarting that, when Pixar finally got around to putting a girl front and center in Brave, they made her sex her defining character trait. (Think back on those self-actualizing heroes of Pixar past: They may tussle with being a rat, or a robot, or a toy cowboy, but not with being a boy.) Eep is a girl, but that’s not something she has to overcome, or overcompensate for, or waste any time with, proving she’s just as able. She is at ease on all fours and on two legs, as invigorated by the hunt for fresh meat as she is girlishly giddy about the first feel of shoes on her callused-warrior feet. Maybe it’s reactionary to call animation a battleground, but the fact that Eep is afforded that breadth of motivation and emotion without it once being tethered to her “girlness”? That’s a win.