Mark this down: The first Oscar contender of 2013 is opening this weekend.
“The Croods,” the DreamWorks story of a caveman and his family coping with changing times, looks like a good bet to become one of the nominees for best animated feature.
It's not just that the animation style is top-notch and unique. The script and direction (Kirk De Micco, “Space Chimps,” and Chris Sanders, “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Beauty and the Beast”) come from sure-footed cartoon veterans. Character development and voice work also are first rate.
And the movie is a fun ride, mixing humor, adventure, peril, romance and the warmth of a family story. All that's aided and abetted by Alan Silvestri's excellent original score.
Emma Stone voices the central character, rebellious teen Eep, who longs to shake off the cautious rules of her cave-dwelling dad, Grog (voice of Nicolas Cage), crawl out of the shadows and spend time in the light.
Grog's motto is all about survival in a harsh world: “Live life in routine, darkness and terror.” It's how he's kept Eep, her tweener brother Thunk (Clark Duke), her baby sister Sandy, her mom Ugga (Catherine Keener) and Gran (Cloris Leachman) alive this long.
But times are changing, heralded by a young man Eep runs across after sneaking out of the cave. Guy (Ryan Reynolds) warns that the cave won't save the family from the imminent destructive times. They must get to high ground on a mountain, and quick.
The movie covers familiar story lines that play out in original ways. Grog is afraid of losing his daughter's affection to Guy. It doesn't help that Guy is full of clever ideas. It's brains versus brawn, and brains are gradually winning over Grog's family. But at first Guy just wants to get away from this forever-feuding family.
Most of the movie turns into an adventurous road trip toward the mountain. Hazards range from animals (saber-tooth tigers, mastadons, piranha-like birds) to plants (beautiful carnivorous flowers) to nature (tar pits, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions).
In Guy's capable hands, the family is introduced to wondrous new things, such as fire, shoes, rain, pets, puppetry, musical instruments — the list is long. All the while, Grog feels increasingly sidelined and threatened as Guy warms to Eep's boldness and physical strength.
The movie strikes a nice balance in showing the value of both strength and brains, caution and embracing new things.
And it does that with a quick-paced stream of laughs, exciting action sequences and moments of heartfelt feeling.
Veteran sitcom star Leachman, of course, has killer comedic timing. But the young'uns, Reynolds and Stone, give her a run for her money as they bring contemporary sensibilities to stone-age times. And Cage is excellent as the brooding father clinging to older, safer ways of thinking — but learning to keep an open mind.
This is one movie all ages can relate to and enjoy.
Bonus: Not a single bathroom joke in the entire, fast-moving hour and 38 minutes.
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