You couldn’t find a more apt movie to sum up DreamWorks
Animation at the moment than “The Croods” (March 22), the
prehistoric road trip adventure about embracing change as a survival strategy
when the world turns terribly hostile. After last year’s box office misfire
with “Rise of the Guardians,” which resulted in a $165 million write-off, layoffs, and schedule reshuffle, DreamWorks is definitely in transition.
On the plus side, there’s a new distribution deal with Fox, which gives
DreamWorks greater control of marketing while it right-sizes its ambitious
animation enterprise, searching for the next hit and potentially the next
franchise. What that will ultimately mean creatively remains to be seen. But,
as Nicolas Cage’s Grug learns in “The Croods,” now’s not the time to
suddenly become risk-averse.
In the meantime, “The Croods” should put
DreamWorks back on track commercially. It’s a fast, fun and funny journey with
something on its mind that we can all relate to in these precarious times: a
dysfunctional family that learns to stick together and adapt or die. It’s as
stunningly naturalistic as anything DreamWorks has ever animated. And the voice
casting is spot on with Cage as the stubborn dad whose old school mentality
just won’t cut it anymore; Ryan Reynolds as the free spirit with a bold new vision
for a better tomorrow; and Emma Stone as the daughter caught in a tug-of-war
between the two.
Bottom line: while it lacks the gravitas of “How to Train
Your Dragon,” it’s a lot more substantial than “Madagascar.” I
certainly don’t agree with the trade reviews that it’s too kid friendly: I
think parents will respond to its storytelling and humor, though arguably
greater emphasis on the romance between Reynolds and Stone might have given it
more date night appeal. But then it might have veered off into a whole other
Fortunately, directors Kirk DeMicco (who scripted
“Quest for Camelot”) and Chris Sanders (“How to Train Your
Dragon”) strike the right balance. Of course, it took long enough. The
project began in 2005 as a stop-motion vehicle, “Crood Awakening,”
co-written by DeMicco and John Cleese when DreamWorks was still partnered with
Aardman. But a year later they broke up and the project didn’t get back on
track until 2007 when Sanders left Disney. They retooled for a year until
Sanders departed for “Dragon.” But when he returned in 2009 after his
crash course in CG, they found the right hook as a family-oriented adventure
rather than a “Midnight Run” conceit.
“When I left for ‘Dragon’ it was a lot more Dr. Seuss
whimsical and when I came back, given this new story line, we both realized
that it need to have more weight and reality, so we redid all the surfaces and
made the whole world a lot more believable,” Sanders recalls.
They wanted the world to be as alien and unpredictable for
the viewer as it is for the cave clan. The landscape is Zion-like in its
stylization (and as horizontal as the character design), and the creatures are
hybrids (such as Chunky, the Death Cat Macawnivore). The camerawork is even
more hand-held and voyeuristic than “Dragon,” giving “The Croods” a documentary vibe.
Speaking of “Dragon,” Roger Deakins was back as
visual consultant and his influence can be seen in some of the nighttime
scenes. The crisp, clean blacks and torch lit moments bear his signature.
“While it is a very low population for an animated
film, they’re onscreen together the entire time and it’s all about the dynamics
because there’s no traditional villain,” DeMicco remarks. “There’s
nowhere to cut to, there’s nowhere to look, there’s nowhere to take a break,
there’s no B-story. I think it took us a very long time to get a handle on
tracking every scene for this ensemble. Unlike live-action, where they bring
the last scene with them, we had to bring it with us.”
Technically, what was the greatest challenge? Tar. That was
a new element that the DreamWorks simulation team had never dealt with before
but they eventually figured out the right viscosity.
“These types of stories where you have real people in
extraordinary situations are my very favorite,” Sanders admits. “I
like characters that are mixture of good and evil and certainly more so than
any other project I’ve worked on, these are subtle characters. It’s strange to
say that, because they run around and crash into things and their world is very
hostile, but we had to strike a delicate balance because we needed the audience
to sympathize with them and like them at the same time that these characters
needed to be believably in opposition to each other.”
A delicate balance, indeed. “The Croods” marks the
first animated release of the year in a season where originals are in
opposition to franchises. We’ll have to see how it plays out, especially with
regard to the Oscar race.