Allow me to list off a few of the previews that screened in front of today’s movie.

  • Epic — A film so generic that even the title is completely void of creativity and effort.
  • Monsters University — I like how Disney is selling this film, but it’s still a prequel that no one asked for, and the Pixar brand is starting to lose its shine.
  • Turbo — I could swear I saw this movie before, but with a rat who wanted to be a Parisian chef.
  • Despicable Me 2 — Never saw the first one, and I’ve never regretted that choice. No comment for the sequel.
  • The Smurfs 2 — Fuck off.

And lest we forget, this year has already seen the release of a little turd called Escape from Planet Earth. 2013 is not shaping up to be a very good year in cinema so far, and things don’t appear to be getting any better where kids’ films are concerned.

So here’s The Croods, a movie that I wasn’t particularly excited about seeing in the first place. However, since Spring Break has opened up my schedule and the film came recommended by a number of usually reliable critics, I was persuaded to give the film a watch. And my reaction was entirely “meh.”

The film doesn’t really have a plot so much as it has a premise. It starts way back in prehistoric times, when we meet a family of cavemen. Foremost among them is Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage), an overprotective father who’s deathly afraid of the dangerous outside world. He’s absolutely determined to keep his family cooped up in their cave for as long as possible, away from any potential trouble. Naturally, this comes to anger his teenaged daughter (Eep, voiced by Emma Stone), who wants nothing more than to venture out of the cave and see what life has to offer.

As for the rest of the Croods, we have Ugga (Catherine Keener), Grug’s level-headed wife. Aside from Eep, they have two other kids: Thunk (Clark Duke), a meathead who’s completely incapable of independent thought, and Sandy (voiced by supervising sound editor Randy Thom), a baby who’s little more than an animal herself. Rounding out the family is Gran (Cloris Leachman), Grug’s mother-in-law.

Anyway, Eep ventures out from the cave one night and stumbles upon Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a more evolved human with a variety of new ideas and inventions. One of them is a pet sloth whom he calls “Belt” (voiced by director and co-writer Chris Sanders). Guy seems convinced that the world is going to end in a series of earthquakes (never mind how he knows this) and sure enough, an earthquake comes to destroy the Croods’ cave. As such, the family of cavemen are forced to befriend Guy, using him as a guide through all the dangers and delights of the outside world until they can find a new home.

On the surface, this would seem like your typical “overprotective parent vs. the wild outside world” family movie premise, right? Well, it is. That might not be such a bad thing, except that this particular movie botches the premise. Hard.

Consider Finding Nemo, arguably the definitive example of family films with this particular theme. In that movie, the main characters were harmless little fish. They didn’t really have any defense against sharks, jellyfish, seagulls, fishing boats, or any of the other dangers out there in the open sea. Hell, the film opens with the mass homicide of a main supporting character and nearly all of her young, just to get the point across early on that any of these characters could potentially die.

For another example, we’ve got The Secret World of Arrietty. That particular movie went very far out of its way to portray its Lilliputian characters as weak and fragile things. These little people could easily be killed by a gust of wind, never mind any of the fearsome insects or animals lurking about.

With all of this in mind, let’s get back to The Croods. In the first five minutes of this movie, we see the family of cavemen working together to steal an egg from animals who could dwarf any two or three of them. In the process, they show strength, speed, agility, and immunity from pain that could easily put Spider-Man through his paces. They effortlessly survive hits and falls that would have seriously injured any normal person. And it doesn’t stop there. As the movie goes on, we see these characters get beaten, electrocuted, crushed, burned, and dropped from insanely great heights, only to walk away without a scratch.

Do you see the problem here?

Grug spends the entire movie afraid for his family’s safety. The whole film revolves around this concept, but we see on multiple occasions that these characters are completely invulnerable. Everyone kept acting and talking like any of these characters could die at any minute, but the opening minutes of this film clearly showed that they could survive pretty much anything. As such, the foundation of this movie is irreparably broken from the very start.

Another huge problem is with the film’s wildlife. The Croods come across all manner of fantastical plants and animals over the course of their travels, and I feel quite confident in saying that none of them actually existed. There are two problems with this, one minor and one major. The minor problem is that this undermines the film’s prehistoric premise. If the movie had featured actual prehistoric animals, it would have done a lot more to sell the premise that all of this actually happened in our world way back when. The film would have been a lot more educational as well.

But here’s the major problem: The filmmakers had absolutely no limits or restraints on what they could create. They could just make up whatever animals they wanted and provide whatever attributes they needed. They could include all the contrived story points they wanted, with no consequences at all.

By a similar token, the various tectonic shifts and natural disasters come at the most ridiculously contrived moments. They happen exactly as the filmmakers want them to, without any rhyme or reason to dictate when or how.

The point being that this film has absolutely no baseline of logic. The movie is terribly inconsistent about its own rules and goals. We’re shown on multiple occasions that these characters can’t die, yet we’re expected to believe that they could die at any moment. The film tries to create tension, but the problems and their solutions are all predictably and transparently contrived.

Luckily, the movie does have some very compelling points in its favor. One of them is Alan Silvestri, who composes a better score than this picture deserved. Perhaps more importantly, the visuals kick ass. The colors and character designs on display are simply eye-popping, and the animation is utterly phenomenal as well. Of course, it certainly helps that master Roger Deakins was once again on hand to consult for the good people at DreamWorks Animation.

My one minor complaint about the visuals is with regard to the 3D. That’s not to say it was bad, just bland. 3D is usually mandatory with films this stunning, but I didn’t feel that way with this one. There was never a moment when I thought to myself “this has to be seen in 3D.” In all honesty, I’m not sure I’d have missed the polarized lenses if I didn’t have them.

With all of that aside, what about the characters? Well, the cast in this movie presents a very unusual case.

Purely by themselves, the characters in this movie are individually worthless. Thunk, Gran, Sandy, and Belt are all comic relief characters who are woefully void of comedy. Ugga is a complete non-entity. Eep is a one-dimensional adolescent princess. Grug’s stubborn and jealous attitude got very old very quickly.

On the other hand, we’ve got Guy. He’s an interesting character on his own, since his ideas and knowledge eventually make him the family’s de facto leader, which is a role that he neither asked for nor wanted. What’s more, a few lines here and there make it clear that Guy isn’t a caveman as the Croods are. It’s like he and the family are two different species of human, implying that Guy is among the next step in human evolution. This puts Guy closer to us in terms of wit and intelligence, which makes him a fine “straight man” against the family’s rampant ignorance. Even better, setting the film’s “change or die” theme against the backdrop of evolution (however implicitly) was a very clever way to give the tired premise a new perspective.

I was also very interested by the Guy/Eep romance. This arc was unusual in that it’s Eep who’s all aggressive about her attraction to the male character, instead of the other way around. It brought home the point that Eep is an uncivilized young woman who doesn’t really know how to act around those who aren’t part of her family. Most other stories would express this through making the character overly shy, but Eep is different. She was raised as an animal, so she approaches this potential mate with foolhardy confidence. It’s a very novel dynamic, and it’s played quite well by Stone and Reynolds.

In point of fact, the voice cast is something else in this movie’s favor. I was especially fond of all the times when these characters had to roar, yell, make animal noises, and generally act like total buffoons. It’s quite shocking how well the actors sold those moments. If there are any video recordings of Nic Cage or Emma Stone acting out these scenes in the recording booth, that might be enough to make the DVD worth buying.

Anyway, the characters by themselves are — for the most part — very one-dimensional and cliched. And yet somehow, they all clicked together. I don’t know what it was, but the film somehow managed to sell this group of cavemen as a loving family. I expect that a lot of that has to do with the voice cast, though the various scenes of the family working together as a well-choreographed team help a lot as well. In any case, this movie is at its strongest when the characters are all either working together or fighting each other.

In the end, I can’t really muster up anything except apathy for The Croods. It isn’t good, it isn’t bad, it isn’t offensive, it isn’t insulting, it isn’t creative, and it isn’t particularly funny or touching. It’s just adequate. It’s a flashy and harmless way to spend 90 minutes with your kids, nothing more.

If you have kids who want to see this movie, then take them by all means. Otherwise, take this film or leave it as you will.

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