Lilo & Stitch in 2002 and DreamWorks Animation's How to Train Your Dragon in 2010, we've all been like, "Chris Sanders is so great", and "good for Chris Sanders, nurturing Stitch as an idea for so many years", and "poor Chris Sanders, couldn't make American Dog", and generally, as animation fanciers, denigrating your contributions to those films while raising your writing and directing partner up to the level of martyr and god.
Now comes The Croods, which Sanders co-wrote and co-directed without DeBlois (he's joined by Kirk De Micco, whom you almost certainly don't remember as the director and writer of 1998's Space Chimps), and thinking it over and weighing the evidence and all, I can come up with only one conclusion: we've been fêting the wrong partner. That, or Sanders was so monstrously hamstrung by the pressures of this project (which was ported to DreamWorks after Aardman Animation, then in partnership with the American studio found they couldn't do anything with a script initially co-written by John Cleese) that it was a victory just to make it mechanically functional. But I can't bring myself to believe that - that it would be possible to completely bury the softness and snarky energy of Lilo & Stitch and HTTYD without even a flicker of the sweetness and charm which those movies have in spades. And yet here's The Croods, whose idea of humanising characterisation is a running chain of "Mothers-in-law, amiright?" jokes that were embarrassingly ancient when sound cinema was still a novelty.
Lest I get too far too fast into bashing on the film's ghastly, mediocre screenplay, I would like to first mention that The Croods is gorgeous. DreamWorks appears to have very abruptly rounded a corner, even just in the handful of months since 2012 ended: last year's intentionally simplistic Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and the handsomely designed but somewhat blocky and plasticine Rise of the Guardians were business as usual for a studio that has perpetually lagged between two and four years behind Pixar in the visual sophistication stakes, but The Croods (and, judging from the attached trailer, this summer's Turbo) represents a jump in animation quality above anything the studio has ever produced (and I regretfully include HTTYD itself) that it hardly seems possible to be the same team. It's tempting to credit the presence of legendary animator James Baxter as something called the "animation director", however that's different from what Sanders and De Micco are doing (he's also directly responsible for the film's exceedingly charming intro, a 2-D cartoon done in a super-limited, almost crayon-like style), or maybe just the fact that every baby bird needs to grow up at some point, and given a chance to develop some really extraordinary visions in a film that frequently isn't even hiding its intention to be an Avatar clone rather than a movie with characters and a story, the studio decided to really throw itself at realism and see what it could come up with. In fact, it's almost too realistic: the design, especially of the titular family, is so utterly warped and borderline-grotesque, that the hyper-fluid movement and extremely detailed surfaces create a serious mismatch between how obviously stylised the movie is and how physically tangible it nonetheless seems. It took me, at least, a good long while to get used to this, and for a solid 15 or 20 minutes, The Croods suffered from the same "my eyeballs are bleeding" quality that the 48fps The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey had.
Still and all, it's an impressive, colorful, imaginatively-designed cartoon adventure, rather spoiled by being shackled to a deeply perfunctory story. At some point in human prehistory - historical context is extremely low on the film's list of priorities, and rightly - there's a family of cavemen, the Croods: six in all, including old Gran (Cloris Leachman), mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), dim son Thunk (Clark Duke), and animalistic baby Sandy, but the only ones who really matter are teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone) and father Grug (Nicolas Cage), because they are the one enacting the ancient kabuki of a narrative in which the adolescent child wants to explore the world and grow, while the conservative parent wants to keep everybody safe and secure at home (his motto, repeated often, is "Never not be afraid"). Things come to a head when Eep meets the hunky, evolved Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who correctly predicts an earthquake that destroys the Croods' cave, sending them all into a huge valley filled with colorful, extravagantly deadly fauna. Eventually, things turn into a struggle for primacy between the brainy Guy and the brawny Grug, because what the hell else would they do, anyway?
Excessive, nay, suffocating familiarity isn't the only problem with The Croods, though it's one I'd only be interested in forgiving if there were some kind of sparkle or twist or unique personality to make it feel a bit less paint-by-numbers, and there is not. The other problem is its weird structure, in which our initial protagonist Eep starts to drift out of focus, to be finally replaced in the last act by Grug. The overall effect is that it feels like we're not even being told a story, just shown incidents out of a travelogue that happens to coincide with one character's arc. The seven characters (and a pink sloth named Belt, voiced by Sanders - a charming performance, though his Stitch is better) are tolerable rather than likable, and matter more because of what happens to them than because of who they are or what they feel.
Admittedly, plenty of what happens to them is entertaining enough: Sanders and De Micco have a good feel for the anarchic slasptick of the Looney Tunes from the '40s and especially the '50s, and The Croods certainly movie at a brisk (even annoyingly manic) pace. A very promising opening scene stages a massive multi-species race to secure a single giant egg, set to a marching band orchestration of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk", with a spirited, cartoon messiness that is sometimes repeated by the fanciful violence littered throughout the movie. And even at the lowest ebb of story and humor, such as the stalled-out false climax where Grug and Guy have to collaborate to escape a tar bit, the film always looks damn pretty.
That being said, the film taps out its variety pretty early on, and eventually has to settle for being pretty in mostly the same ways, and it's still, when all is said and done, a teen angst animated comedy grafted on a stock caveman vs. technologically advance Cro-Magnon story, and neither of those genres have much freshness left to them. It's a distraction, at best; mostly harmless but also vaguely annoying, and certainly not tender or moving or resonant in any way whatsoever.