Monday, April 8, 2013

The Croods

I've been following the career of Chris Sanders for a few years now, even since I saw his excellent "Lilo & Stitch".  Chris Sanders has a fairly legendary status amongst animation fans, as he can be seen as something of a modern Don Bluth.  He's a former Disney worker who jumped ship after his movie, "American Dog", became transformed into the painfully generic "Bolt".  However, after joining DreamWorks, I wonder if Sanders really has gotten that intellectual freedom he was looking for when he left Disney.  "How to Train Your Dragon" is probably still the best DreamWorks animated film since "The Prince of Egypt", and as much as I liked that movie, nothing about it felt like a Chris Sanders movie.  Only a few dragon designs really seemed to show off his original art style.  And comparisons to "Lilo & Stitch" would make pretty much any movie look inferior, so I'll quiet my tongue there.

When the first trailers for "The Croods" came out, I was actually very much into it.  I could see immediately in the facial structure and luscious thighs of the Cavegirl, Eeb, that this was going to be a movie with the full Chris Sanders flair.  Yeah, it was in 3D, but you could still see his distinctive style at work.  Which is why it pains me so much to say, "The Croods" is probably the most generic animated film I've ever seen.  You plot out a graph using every cartoon of the last ten years as a point, and there will be "The Croods" sitting at dead mediocre center.  Chris Sanders has made a gorgeous movie, about as beautiful as anything you will ever see in a theater.  His world design is top-notch and every frame looks like the prettiest moments of a JRPG like "Xenoblade".  But the plot is pure service.  This is mostly because Chris Sanders has decided to partner up with a man named Kirk DeMicco, whose most successful movie so far is "Space Chimps".  Yes, "Space Chimps".  That really says it all.

I wonder if a movie like this even needed a plot.  Since mostly its a series of gags from start to finish.  The best jokes in the movie are about as old as the prehistoric character themselves, being homages to old Chuck Jones and Bob Camplett "Looney Tunes" shorts.  Unfortunately, with all the animated madness its hard to actually shift gears when the movie bothers to grow serious.  And then, the story itself isn't revolutionary, it doesn't challenge in any way, and it feels like its only there to justify making a movie that really only wanted to be jokes.  "The Croods" is wonderfully beautiful, and I believe a great movie might have existed in Chris Sanders mind at some point, but the DreamWorks ethic of batting low and aiming for easy laughs over risking for really experimental filmmaking seems to have gotten to him.  Little kids will love this, adults looking for nothing more than a way to keep their kids quiet will be satisfied, but I am not.

To be more positive, I should repeat again, "The Croods" is easily going to be the most beautiful movie in terms of raw cinematic spectacle that is going to come out in 2013.  It has a very similar design to "Avatar", in which the world is made up of various chimera creatures and much of its landscapes look like something found from either the deep ocean or deep space.  There's a giant cat creature with an owl face, some elephants the size of mice, walking whales, birds with turtle shells, and two little rodents who are joined together by a long rope-like tale.  Here is where most of the artistic energy of "The Croods" seems to have gone:  the create a feast of a movie for your eyes.  And it pays off, even as ho hum as I am about the overall story, there were plenty of breathtaking landscapes, and real moments of movie wonder.  Its just the plot that's the problem.

The trailers for "The Croods" focused mainly on the nubile daughter character, Eeb, as voice acted by Emma Stone.  The actual real main character of the movie is Nicholas Cage in the cartoon-form of Grug, the over-protective father whose philosophy to life is "if its different, run away".  So there is a set-up for the classic daughter running away narrative that plenty of Disney movies have done before, but instead shown through the perspective not of Ariel, but King Triton.  That idea has promise, but its execution is really poor.  "The Croods" plays up the paranoia of Grug's lifestyle to be beyond parody, its simply ridiculous.  Yeah, the Croods do live in a world where they are swarms of flying pink piranhas but do we need to hide in a cave every night in complete maddening isolation*?  Cartoons are supposed to be silly and often exaggerated, but they shouldn't have silly concepts that are way over the top and honestly do not make much sense.

For the most part, "The Croods" only really had a plot at all to string together various high-energy comedy segments or to introduce a new strange creature for the family to run away from.  At times, these sequences can be a lot of fun, such as the opening football game where the Croods show off their acrobatic skills to out-race every other animal in the world to steal an egg for dinner.  Then there's the jokes that simply do not work, like Grug's near, no, make that truly psychotic desire to kill his mother-in-law.  That running joke isn't even subtle, he says out-right "I wanted to kill your mother" to his wife.  I mean, holy god, I brought my little brother to this!  Wow, that's dark.

You do start to feel bad for Grug as his position of authority wanes away as Eeb's new boyfriend, this more advanced hominid named Guy, comes into the picture.  Guy actually can think, and isn't afraid of everything in the universe.  He's also handy, comes up with tools, and is the only person who can lead the Croods away from the impending destruction of the planet, the cause of which is never explained.  So not only does Grug have to deal with the stress of his daughter getting cozy with some Guy, but also his place in the family has been destroyed and his entire way of life is gone.  This all is there, and its at times compelling, and to "The Croods"'s credit, there is one very touching scene at end.  But its all lost when Grug spend five-minutes talking in a goofy Nicholas Cage voice and trying-out various stupid contraptions to prove he's still necessary.

Also, since this is an animated film, Nicholas Cage can only deliver a small fraction of the raw Nicholas Cage ham power that we all know and love.  If any movie needed a completely off-the-balls Nic Cage to shake the cobwebs out of the plot, it would have been "The Croods".

In conclusion, everything Chris Sanders brought to the story is great.  Everything that Kirk DeMicco brought is crap.  These two voices do not work together, the movie they made felt incoherent.  "The Croods" is just good upon limited examination.  For as pretty and eye-popping as the animation is, and let me remind you, there will not be a prettier movie made in 2013, the story and the plot is all flat.  Its DreamWorks, that's really all you need to say.

* And of course, there's the horrifying question of:  "just what was Grug planning on doing with his teenage daughter and teenage son who each have no other sexual mates?"

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