Visually beautiful, The Croods upholds the importance of the role of the father
The first time Grugg Crood appears on screen, we see him screaming a series of incoherent babblings at the top of his lungs while rolling his eyes and flailing his arms about wildly. Yes, ladies and gentlemen – this is the role Nick Cage has been prepping for his entire career.
OK, I can’t really back that up, but I can at least say Grugg’s antics are the perfect introduction to the character Cage voices. You see, the head of the Crood clan is a caveman ruled by an overpowering fear of, well… everything. And that’s not as irrational as it sounds because pretty much everything in his environment actually does want to kill Grugg and his family. As the movie opens, we learn that the Croods are the last survivors in their particular part of the prehistoric world, and Grugg will do whatever he feels is necessary to keep it that way (beginning with hysterically leaping from their cave each and every morning in an attempt to frighten off whatever might be lurking outside). After that, Grugg allows the rest of the Croods to remain outside only as long as it takes to secure a meal for the day – a task that usually involves combatting most of the animals in the area – and then he quickly ushers them back inside the cave and seals up the entrance. As Grugg explains to his wife and children, boring routine, sitting in darkness, and staying in a state of terror are the essential keys to a safe and happy life.
The problem is that Grugg’s precautions have become so suffocating to his teenage daughter, Eep, that she just can’t take it anymore. Sneaking out of the cave late one night, Eep happens upon Guy, a teenage boy one step up the evolutionary ladder who’s passing through on his journey to escape the oncoming wave of destruction resulting from the realignment of the continents. Though Eep is immediately smitten with the handsome Guy and his fascinating inventions (fire being a particular favorite), her brutish behavior initially makes the boy extremely uncomfortable. And once the rest of the Croods emerge from their cave and form their customary family kill circle, Guy becomes determined to get away from the lot of them as quickly as possible. Grugg, who considers anything new and unknown to be a threat to the family, swiftly concurs and demands that Eep stay away from the boy until he is gone.
Fate intervenes in the form of an earthquake, however, and the Croods find themselves fleeing for their lives with a very reluctant Guy in tow as their prisoner (Grugg having reluctantly admitted that Guy’s fire has its uses). With danger following at every step, Grugg’s only concern is to find another cave to hide in as quickly as possible, but as the group makes their way across the rapidly disintegrating landscape, the rest of the family begins to come around to Guy’s side as his inventions (shoes, umbrellas, etc.) get them through one scrape after another. More egregious to Grugg, though, is that the rest of the Croods begin to abandon his pessimistic worldview and adopt Guy’s belief that a bright and better tomorrow can be found if they only just keep following the light of the Sun (feel free to make your own allusions here).
Now if all this is making The Croods sound like just another turgid teenage fantasy wherein the rebellious yet righteous daughter doggedly pursues her true love against the wishes of an overbearing unenlightened father, well, yes – the movie stumbles through that over-trodden territory for at least two thirds of its running time. By the time Grugg sits forlornly by himself in a stone maze because he’s the only one who can’t abandon his old way of thinking and finding a way out, I can easily see a number of parents rolling their eyes and making ready to head for the exits. But a few things saves The Croods from being so easily dismissed.
To begin with, the movie is based on an idea originally conceived by Monty Python’s John Cleese, so there’s no lack of biting comedy (Grugg bases many of his decisions on the desire to see if the outcome might finally end the life of his cantankerous mother-in-law) or broad physical humor (the family’s attempt to make friends with Guy’s fire ends in total devastation to the surrounding countryside). Plus, the movie is a joy for the eyes: The Croods is as lavishly colored as the recent Oz, the Great and Powerful, but with a more painterly palette than Oz’s Technicolor assault. And the colors extend off the landscapes and onto the animals themselves in a bizarre menagerie of creatures that would look very much at home on the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.
Yet The Croods principle saving grace is a little trick played by the narrative. The movie is co-written and co-directed by Chris Sanders, who shared the same duties on Dreamworks’s last really good movie, How to Train Your Dragon, and both films share a similar parent-child conflict as their central theme. But whereas How To Train Your Dragon focused on the young Hiccup, it becomes evident by the end of The Croods that the movie isn’t about Eep and Guy at all, but rather has been Grugg’s story all along. By making Grugg the protagonist instead of the antagonist, the movie becomes less about kids teaching dumb old daddy a lesson (I’m as weary of that trope as every other parent shelling out the price for movie tickets these days) and more about a man doing what it takes to protect and provide for his family, even if that means stepping outside his comfort zone on occasion. And in an unexpected turn of events, the movie even manages to play fair with a scene late in the film, where Guy runs out of answers and everyone realizes they must rely on Grugg’s old way of doing things in order to survive a particular threat.
So basically, rather than being just another tale of animated angst filled adolescents, The Croods ends up being about the journey of a middle-aged caveman who can still change when the needs of his family call for it. And I’m OK with that – after all, there’s only ever been one flawless Father out there, and the rest of us dads – be we dressed in business suits or bear skins – are just doing our best to follow His example.