There is no doubt that DreamWorks has established itself as a film-brand nearly as recognizable as Pixar, but the value of such is debatable, given that the brand is essentially “The Big Animation Studio That Isn’t As Good as Pixar.” That’s not to say that the animators at DreamWorks don’t execute a good idea well every so often; “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Kung Fu Panda,” and “Shrek” are all top-notch entertainments for kids and adults alike. But that the studio is invariably viewed on the negative end of comparisons to its towering competitor, rather than as its own entity (despite comparable box office success), tells you something about the usual quality of its output. Movies like “The Croods,” a beautiful looking but dramatically inert work that will only satisfy the youngest of children, are DreamWorks’ bread and butter.
The reason for the difference in quality between the two studios’ films is easily identifiable: Pixar is as inventive with story and character as they are with visuals, while DreamWorks usually treats these two elements as secondary concerns. The basic premise for “The Croods”—a family of cavemen fight to survive in a prehistoric world of exotic predators and shifting tectonic plates—is perfectly good fodder for an animated film, but writer/directors Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco clearly didn’t put much thought into where to take it. Unlike the film’s lavish images, the narrative in “The Croods” is strictly paint-by-numbers, populated by clichés like overprotective father-teenage daughter conflict, a cooky mother-in-law who chimes in with comedic relief, chase sequences (albeit featuring creatively-designed ancient animals), and a perilous climax which threatens to separate the titular family. For the kid moviegoers in the audience who haven’t already seen these tropes enacted hundreds of times, the film is passable entertainment; for the rest of us, it can be a chore to sit through.
Alas, what keeps “The Croods” from spiraling into straight-to-video quality are those stunning visuals (not surprisingly supervised by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins) and spirited voice-work from A-listers (well, in the case of Nicolas Cage, an A-lister of yesteryear). On the former front: The animators not only render vivid prehistoric landscapes—a barren, sandy, cavernous region sits atop a colorful jungle that the characters discover in the second act—but they also nail the cavemen themselves, with curvy features and apelike locomotion. Even though “The Croods” rarely immerses on a story level, there are several moments (such as the opening hunt sequence) that leave the viewer simply in awe of their aesthetics. Likewise, while the characters are little more than cardboard cutouts, the voice cast—including Catherine Keener, Ryan Reynolds, the aforementioned Cage, and the adorably husky-sounding Emma Stone—do their darndest to at least personify them into likable cardboard cutouts.
So, sure, there are worse ways to spend 98 minutes with your kids than seeing “The Croods.” But if you want to leave the theater on an upbeat note, refrain from asking yourself the question, “What would Pixar have done with this concept?”