The Croods takes more than a few pages from the James Cameron playbook. Though centered on a family of prehistoric cave people, led by paterfamilias Grug (Nicholas Cage), on the cusp of an extinction-level event, the film’s most rousing sequences involve the dazzlingly colorful forested area that exists past Grug’s cave and is full of land-whales, flying turtles, bird-piranhas, and one giant-headed sabre-toothed cheetah. And the film gets an admirable amount of comic mileage out of Grug and company’s interactions with this world and its creatures, occasionally to the point that the hugely sentimentalized and flimsy plot dissolves completely.
Cribbing rather blatantly from Brave, Up, and, yes, Avatar, the actual story of The Croods chiefly involves Grug’s daughter, Eep (Emma Stone), who sneaks out of her cave one night to escape her father’s strict curfew and ever-present watch, only to meet-cute with Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a whip-smart hunk who wears a pet sloth as a belt and warns of an impending apocalypse. It’s enough to convince Grug to join up with Guy on the road to a mystical mountain straight out of Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, though their final destination looks more like Cabo. Visually, the film keeps the hits coming, but the comedy regularly reverts to broad familial jokes about how adorable overprotection is.
The lack of structured storytelling acumen wouldn’t be so much of an issue if filmmakers Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders—the latter is one half of the directing team behind How to Train Your Dragon—didn’t establish such a rigid disparity between the sentimentality of Grug’s relationship with Eep and the wild comic abstractions that allow the film to more convincingly embrace its elementally cartoony world. The rather blatant market-tested sensibility is evident throughout, but can be felt most deeply early on as the film turns what was originally Eep’s story about discovery into Grug’s story about becoming less of an intolerant, brutal ass.
All the other family members, including Grug’s wife, Ugga (Catherine Keener), and his mother-in-law, Gran (Cloris Leachman), dissolve into utilities of the narrative, and the film’s repugnant, Spielbergian double-ending cancels out any sense of even the most minor stakes. The Croods is marketed toward families and initially shows interest in other members of the titular brood, but ultimately is most empathetic toward Grug and all those poor cavemen out there who can hardly beat the shit out of their daughter’s boyfriend nowadays without getting the third degree.