If titles were always entirely accurate, The Croods would be called Grug and Eep. At heart it’s not truly about the adventures and welfare of the titular stone age family, but rather the tale of a strained relationship between a father and his teenage daughter who yearns to break free of her family’s constraining lifestyle.
In a prehistoric world fraught with perils, the Croods have survived where others have not thanks to the cautious protectiveness of Grug, the patriarch of the family, who has taught his clan to “never not be afraid”. So the family always sticks together, and except for occasional hunting trips, the Croods spend their nights and most days barricaded inside their small, dark cave. This way of life allows them to survive, but Eep, Grug’s eldest daughter, has a barely-suppressed adventurous streak and seizes any opportunity to spend as much time out of the cave as possible. Her feelings are amplified when she ventures out one night and encounters Guy, a young man who’s inexplicably scrawny and several levels more sophisticated than Eep and her family. Eep encounters him by investigating the alien sight of fire, which he apparently invented, and this is just one of his several discoveries and innovations as a prehistoric ideas man. (He uses a pet sloth to act as the world’s first belt.) He’s even smart enough to predict an imminent earthquake, a precursor to the Earth’s continents breaking and drifting apart according to the Pangaea theory. Soon after, Grug barely has time to discipline Eep for her dangerous escapade before Guy’s prediction comes true and the Croods’ home is demolished, forcing the family to flee from a fierce predator into an unknown wilderness. Their ticket to safety may lie with Guy, who has a plan to “follow the sun” and pass through a mountain to a new land that he calls “tomorrow”.
The conflict and contrast that drive this story are familiar in every way. The Croods rely on strength but aren’t very smart; Guy is weak but has the smarts and ideas to make up for that, however implausible some of those ideas might be. (In one scene Guy doesn’t just build a trap to catch food, he constructs a puppet of sorts to lure animals with). Grug and the Croods (sans Eep) start out fearing anything unfamiliar; Guy is forever trying new things. Grug obstinately keeps trying to apply his old rules to a new environment where they don’t work well or at all, but Guy has the ability to adapt to a situation. Before long Guy is winning over the family with his ideas and clearly the heart of Eep too, leaving Grug feeling frustrated and insecure and therefore resentful toward Guy. Grug represents stagnation, Guy evolution, and plenty of dialogue harps on the goal of “following the light” versus surviving in darkness. The outcome of this conflict is so obvious, a Neanderthal could have guessed it.
To its credit, The Croods does at least spare us the totally insipid cliché of the aggressively dumb father figure with Grug. He’s a well-meaning and loving father out of his depth, not an obstinate and prideful fool; when Grug’s inevitable development toward a more open mind comes, it’s in large part due to the tough epiphany that the traditions that once kept his family safe would ultimately do just the opposite. Mercifully, Guy is not the least bit condescending, and eventually bonds with Grug when discussing his own feelings for his now-deceased family that drives his behavior. For her part, Eep is frustrated with her dad, but ultimately understands where he’s coming from and family bonds win out. This is satisfying, albeit predictable. It’s unfortunate that the rest of the Croods could be absent without really impacting the film. Ugga is Grug’s more open-minded wife who is occasionally a voice of reason; Thunk is the dim-witted son; the youngest daughter Sandy is a growling, ferocious toddler. Then there’s Gran, Grug’s hopelessly stereotypical mother-in-law who thinks he’s no good. For Grug’s part, the movie is rife with a tasteless recurring joke where Grug is hopeful she’s died only to learn otherwise and be disappointed. The one moment of resolution they get near the end isn’t nearly enough to make up for it.
Alas, this isn’t a movie designed to balance multiple plot threads or fully characterize its fairly small cast of family members. It has the one story of change and innovation vs. tradition that it carries out acceptably, punctuated by plenty of physical humor and silly plans that always work as the plot demands. All this means The Croods is certainly capable of entertaining the younger crowd for 98 minutes, but its reliance on well-worn clichés and often ham-fisted storytelling also renders it only the silliest unmemorable animated movie I’ve seen in years.