Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2013

The Croods

New world

Stellar filmmaking and animation lift otherwise formulaic 'The Croods'

The Croods
20th Century Fox
Director: Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco
Screenplay: Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco
Starring: The voices of Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman and Clark Duke
Rated PG / 1 hour, 38 minutes
Opened March 22, 2013
(out of four)

We need to talk about animated filmmaking. That is, we need to talk about it more often, and with more seriousness. When it comes to the animation itself, too often we boil it down to terms like "eye-popping" and "dazzling" and "bright," without as much appreciation for how the visual language expresses the ideas in the story. And when it comes to the storytelling, too often we boil it down to efficiency and accessibility, or - most egregiously - how much kids will enjoy it.

While I understand this last impulse, it's also one of my pet peeves, because by and large, 7-year-olds do not read film criticism. And furthermore, limiting the scope of a movie's audience to those in a specific age range does a disservice to the craftsmanship involved, as well as the artistic and emotional involvement of the craftsmen themselves.

I mention this in regard to DreamWorks' The Croods because it features some genuinely top-flight filmmaking and a brilliant sense of visual invention - two distinctions I think would be garnering more attention if this were a live-action movie, even with the story elements that seem a bit lacking.

The story is a pretty rote examination of an overprotective father struggling to continue protecting his family (in particular his adventurous and rebellious teenage daughter) while swallowing the bitter pill of progress. It's a formula we've seen countless times before - though generally not with a family of Neanderthals - and in ways it certainly feels more trite and glossed-over than it could have been, right down to the on-the-button montage halfway through the movie that observes the dad struggling to change his ways while the rest of the family has no such trouble.

But what kept me engaged - and engaged is a timid way to describe it; enchanted might be more appropriate - was the way Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco were staging and composing each sequence, and the constant stream of imaginative details and landscapes they came up with. This movie is, if nothing else, a pretty great audiovisual experience. It should come as no surprise that cinematographer Roger Deakins once again lent his hand (or rather, his eye) to the film as a visual consultant, as he has on a number of animated films dating back to WALL-E.

Sanders and DeMicco kick it into high gear nearly from the start with an expertly staged action sequence involving the Crood clan hunting for the day's breakfast. The scene takes on the style of an elaborate slapstick football scene - an unholy union of NFL Films and Marx Brothers-style lunacy - complete with a bouncy, percussive score reminiscent of so many collegiate drumlines heard on Saturday afternoons every fall. The sequence is utterly great action filmmaking, only it won't get credit for being just that.

(On a related note: I was flabbergasted when people expressed any degree of surprise at the virtuosity of Brad Bird's action sequences in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. I mean, had they not seen Ratatouille? That was action directing at its finest!)

That kind of cinematic sophistication continues for the bulk of the film - the brown, expansive vistas out of a 1950s Technicolor Western; the spectral majesty of a sky dotted with lights; the imaginative flora, fauna and wildlife of a more fantastical story - a mix-and-match of historical creatures rendered in splashes of tropical hues. (The movie's fast-and-loose dramatization of evolutionary and geographical history is one of its charms.) It is in that last area that The Croods has drawn comparisons - not always complimentary - to Avatar. To my mind, though, this film's visual creations are a lot more impressive than the tacky, DayGlo monotony of Pandora.

But I digress.

Visual qualities aside, The Croods also benefits from some great voice work from Nicolas Cage as the patriarch Grug, a role he imbues with his trademark energy and eccentricity. Despite an at-times superficial reading of the relationship between Grug and his daughter Eep (Emma Stone), the tug-of-war between his attachment to the primitive way of life he's always known and the [dramatically accelerated] progress of life on Earth ends up playing out rather nicely, concluding of course with the kind of everybody-wins compromise that allows Grug to be a hero that fathers like him always are.

The dilemma, in his case, is complicated by the fact that the new ways of life - after the Croods' cave has been destroyed by an earthquake - come courtesy of Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a modern human who warns of the geological and cultural changes afoot, and has the wherewithal, creativity and survival instincts to survive and adapt. And soon enough, Eep (who, naturally, takes an instant liking to Guy) and the rest of the family are following him rather than Grug as they all search for a new place to call home.

The character elements work well enough (particularly because of Cage), and the film nicely utilizes many of its seemingly decorative elements (the sabertoothed whatever-it-is, the piranha-like red birds) in its plotting as well as its comedy. In both the humor (spotty, but effective) and the adventurous setpieces, and various details in between, the filmmaking itself is what really shines through.

Now if only Nicolas Cage could get that kind of quality direction in one of his live-action efforts.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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