The Croods (2013)
Now with me being what’s politely called a senior, many of you might say I’ve got no reason to go and see a film intended for children. The cultural gap between me as a reviewer and the intended audience is just too great. This will just be an excuse to beat an already dead horse to death. And to some extent, you’d be right. So let’s seize this opportunity and get on with the beating. The Croods (2013) is the latest animation out of DreamWorks and features some interesting voices set against one of these fantasy versions of the past. Superficially, it asks us a number of pertinent questions. In a world with so many perils, do we only survive because we fear injury and death? Take driving as an example. Every minute we’re on the road and in motion, there’s a serious risk of an accident if we fail to keep a proper lookout. Indeed, if a caveman was suddenly to be transported through time and deposited in the middle of our “safe” world, he would probably be dead in ten minutes because he would not understand enough about when he sees to avoid all the hazards we take for granted and avoid. It would be exactly the same if we were suddenly to be moved back to the time there was only the one continent. Yes that long ago. Before continental drift broke up Gondwana into the world mapmakers know and love so much today. Back then, even if we came equipped with supreme American football skills, going for breakfast would probably see us dead, if not from the little critters, then certainly from the big kitty who sees humans as like big mice. In that world, survival is not fun. In fact, nothing is fun in the sense we would understand the word. Hypervigilance is required at all times and curiosity is forbidden.
So now, following in the footsteps of The Flintstones, comes the Crood family. Papa Grug (Nicholas Cage) has all the right instincts for survival in an unchanging world even though the results are somewhat paranoid and dysfunctional (he’s a prehistoric Chicken Little with a constant fear the sky is falling). Through dumb luck, he’s come up with what seems to be the right formula because everyone else around him has died. This family is the only group of survivors in this area. But when I say “dumb” luck, the formula is really stupid and the film mocks his efforts as all the family go through the requisite contortions for survival. We are continually shown that there’s a vast gulf between not dying and living with an optimum quality of life given the environment. Ugga (Catherine Keener) and her mother, Gran (Cloris Leachman) go along with it because, so far, living in a cold dark cave has been safe even if they do have to huddle together to stay warn. That the Dad is later shown as dumber than monkeys is cruel. This does not deny some more politically correct humour. As we go on, there’s a wonderful Looney Tunes episode and one or two really nice sight gags.
In the midst of all this, the teenaged Eep (Emma Stone) is a problem. Not only does she insist on her own ledge in the cave but she’s also prone to wandering off and not paying proper attention. Then the Prometheus arrives with fire. He’s called Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and he’s come with news of the end of the world, i.e. he’s the first with the theory that the tectonic plates are moving. And, as if our family needed evidence of the need to change, an earth tremor blocks the entrance to the cave. When the big kitty appears, they have no choice but to move into the jungle. Fortunately presenting them with fire accidentally provides them with popcorn which keeps them alive long enough to see the advantages of a cooked bird to snack on. That’s after they discover rubbing fire against dry grass does not extinguish it — an understandable mistake for the uninitiated.
Once we get into the jungle, we’re shown this is a world of beauty if only they have eyes to see it. Or to put it another way, it’s a bit like an animated version of the countryside in Avatar (unintentionally, of course). By the time they’ve finished their journey, they’ve acquired a “dog” called Douglas and are at one with nature. Particularly when they see the stars — per ardua ad astra — and decide to shoot for the sun and a bright new tomorrow.
Explicitly, the film asks what Dads are for? To keep the family safe, of course. Dads may not have an idea in their heads but they are strong. And if you want a message without sentimentality, don’t go to films like this. Family films with children in mind have to promote family values and that means, despite all appearance to the contrary, wayward teen daughters must finally be able to admit they still love their fathers even though, in real terms, the daughters are modern and their father are, well, like cavemen. More seriously, films like this are reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes. Even though we have a Mom and a Mom-in-law, they are there merely as butts for jokes. For most of the film, they are shown as dependent followers. If a problem crops up they look to the man for its solution. If there’s a chasm to cross, they wait for him to throw them across, even though he gets left behind. Yes, noble self-sacrifice is alive for a brief moment in this prehistoric fantasy.
However, if we look beyond this appalling gender stereotyping, I suppose what the film typifies are the difficult choices the older generation has to take in a changing world. They’re supposed to be the ones with the accumulated wisdom and should be able to guide the young towards a better world. But even that’s a challenge. How do you decide whether to brainwash the children into being wholly dependent on their parents for all decisions or to train them to be independent and open to new things? There always comes a point when parents have to stop protecting their children and let them make their own mistakes. Personally, as a message, I think the result on screen is heavy-handed and uninspiring. Children will no doubt like the pretty colours and some of the jokes are quite amusing (although the mother-in-law is verbally beaten to death), but I can’t see the film as even remotely interesting. As an ironic aside to this review, I should mention The Croods has already taken more than $500 million worldwide which just goes to show that brainless and, at times, mildly offensive children’s films can make a lot of money.