What a tangled production history The Croods went through. With its roots in an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Twits by John Cleese and the director of this picture Kirk DeMicco, it was announced way back in 2005 as Crood Awakening (which they should have stuck with) and was originally to be an Aardman clay animation project, which would have suited it rather well and probably have been better than The Pirates!
Cleese and DeMicco apparently wrote an early draft or two, chiselling out an odd-couple buddy movie script about two cavemen – an inventor and a luddite. The bare bones of that can be seen here, but the final result is rather different, with a family focus that takes that premise and makes it something quite different. Aardman’s association with Dreamworks came to an end, and Lilo & Stitch creator Chris Sanders, who joined as co-creator, wisely prioritised the brilliant How to Train Your Dragon, so production on The Croods slowed to a crawl and only now, in 2013, did the film finally surface.
It’s a little unfortunate, but the fact is that The Croods just gives an immediate impression of mediocrity, a bit like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs did. It doesn’t look like its irreverence has a bit of an edge like Shrek, nor like it might just make you cry like Wall-E or Up. It feels too much like a painful attempt to make a very simple fable into an epic feature film as we join a family of cavemen who live by very strict rules that allow them to survive but never really live – until they are forced out into the open with a slightly unhinged young innovator who knows how to make fire and learn what it really is to push themselves. Its exaggerated but not very appealing designs also simply invite shrugs and indifference on a scale that seems set to be outdone only by the incredibly bland-looking Epic.
But that’s a shame, because The Croods is well worth the watch, and has a lot going for it under the surface. It’s all too polished, yes, and a bit manipulative, but it’s also smart, sweet, wholesome and has some wonderful visuals. It’s not brilliant, but it’s certainly a fair bit above average. It manages to have it all – silly slapstick, character-driven humour, teen romance that works, a positive family message, and even a rather brilliant scene of self-sacrifice that would have been an incredibly moving end to the movie, in a braver world where traumatising children didn’t matter. And so triumphant is what follows that the film gets away with having its cake and eating it.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what prevents the film really hitting the right emotional notes as a whole, but the fact is that it feels too small-scale despite being about characters who believe the end of the world is coming and see destruction that matches it. I thought at first it was that the effects only seem to be affecting so few people, but actually, I think that it’s that the story is so insular. There’s an impression that the feats of the Croods ought to at least bring them to another community, but they are their own little circle, and there is nothing more than that. Thus everything feels limited.
But this is not to say the film is not enjoyable, because it has a whole lot to commend it. Kind acts within a family sometimes are reward enough, and the imaginative creatures that populate the Croodacious period are wonderful – even if I suspect they would have somehow had more impact made of clay than of polygons.