Contrary to geneticists’ grim predictions, redheads are on the rise. At least, that is, in the virtual world of computer-animated movies.
Last year, Pixar’s Oscar-winning Brave introduced us to Princess Merida, a bonnie lass with wild, flaming locks. The crimson tide continues with Eep, the auburn-haired teen heroine of The Croods, Dreamworks Animation’s caveman comedy.
Like Merida, Eep (voiced by Emma Stone) is a restless soul with an insatiable curiosity about what lies beyond the constricting confines of hearth and home — here, a rock den that she shares with her Neanderthal kin: prehistoric patriarch, Grug (Nicolas Cage); mom, Ugga (Catherine Keener); kid brother, Thunk (Clark Duke); baby sister, Sandy (Randy Thom); and crotchety Gran (Cloris Leachman), whose extinction can’t come soon enough for son-in-law Grug.
Early on in their respective films, both maidens scale rocky crags, drawn by the allure of the unknown and the promise of adventure.
Both have overprotective dads — with abnormally large upper bodies — who fret over their daughters’ headstrong impulse to stray from the safety of castle and cave into the wider, fantastical world awaiting them outside. For Merida, it is the fairy-haunted highlands of storybook Scotland; for Eep, it’s the Avatar-inspired ecosystem of some alternate Stone-Age Earth.
During their wanderings, each has a fateful encounter that sets them and their stories in a new direction. But it is precisely at this point that the tales diverge into two very different films.
Brave starts down the predictable path of what my fellow film critic, the Register’s film critic, Steven Greydanus, refers to as “junior-knows-best family filmmaking” — with Merida bucking convention and coming off as yet another feisty fairy-tale feminist. In the end, however, Brave subverts the fashionable subversion of traditional filial piety and actually closes with contrition on the part of the uppity adolescent.
Not so with The Croods.
From the outset, the cave writing on the wall is clear as to where this story is heading.
When we first meet the Crood brood, they are on the hunt for grub, in a riotous sequence involving a giant egg, affirming the old adage: The family that preys together stays together.
Now, by Neanderthal standards, Grug is a prize. He takes good care of his family, patiently reminds them to stay within their “kill circle,” gives them first dibs at mealtime and even tells bedtime stories, though the moral is always the same: “Fear keeps us alive.”
Not an unreasonable maxim, given the fact that their fellow Neanderthal neighbors have all met untimely ends by mammoth or microbe.
As teens are apt to do, Eep pushes back, dismissing Grug as “a drag” and pooh-poohing his ominous cautions that anything new is bad and dangerous.
Sneaking out one night, she meets Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a crush-worthy Cro-Magnon who beguiles her with the hottest new gizmo — fire — and oracular warnings that the end is nigh.
Soon thereafter, his Cassandra-like ravings prove prescient, as the Croods’ familiar world comes, literally, crashing down, forcing them to venture into uncharted territory and kicking the plot into “road trip” mode.
But there’s more than generations clashing, as the Croods, with Guy in tow, journey across an earthquake-riddled landscape of crashing tectonic plates in search of a new home.
Leveraging his Promethean knowledge, Guy increasingly assumes leadership of the troop, while Grug basically becomes the brunt of jokes for the remainder of the film.
Grug’s Paleolithic heart is in the right place, but he is presented as incapable of putting two sticks together, let alone two thoughts, proudly asserting his ignorance with declarations like, “We don’t need brains” and “Ideas are for weaklings.”
Guy on the other hand, with his “evolved” way of thinking, represents not just a more highly developed version of homo sapiens, but Utopian “progress” that promises to lead humanity — symbolized by the cave-dwelling clan — out of “darkness and fear” and into the light of tomorrow, a place, according to Guy, “where things are better than today.”
In many ways, he sounds a lot like elected officials who boast of “evolving” views on social issues and prophets of moral relativism who label anyone a “caveman” who, in their opinion, refuses to “get with the times,” clinging instead to ideas they subjectively deem “outdated” or responsible for keeping society in “darkness and fear.” The political subtext is as subtle as a caveman’s club to the head.
Slightly more veiled is the film’s advocacy of self-autonomous individuality, evident in a scene in which the party find themselves separated in a labyrinthine rock maze and Guy encourages each to “find his own way” out.
Ultimately, family is affirmed through self-sacrifice, and the reconciliation is, admittedly, heartfelt. But unlike the countercultural denouement in Brave, it is dad who must get with the program before he can cross the literal, as well as ideological, chasm that separates him from his family and enter into the Promised Land.
In the film’s lone attempt to acknowledge the Transcendent, Guy leads the broad-browed bunch up a tree to admire the stars — that is, everyone but Grug, who remains below.
Now, before I am accused of being a Neanderthal myself for being overly critical of a kids’ flick about kooky cave people, let me go on the record as saying there are things I really enjoyed about the film: the zany slapstick and vibrantly colorful animation, to name two. I especially liked the imaginatively exotic flora and fauna they encounter, including a psychedelic saber-toothed tiger and a swarm of piranha birds. It’s also refreshing that co-directors Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders (who also directed the far more entertaining How to Train Your Dragon) opted to keep the humor in The Croods relatively, uh, crude-free.
But while I can appreciate the Flintstone-esque social commentary and philosophy-lite riffs on Plato’s famous cave allegory (intended or not), I have serious problems with a family film — and I assume many parents will agree — that celebrates challenging parental authority because parents are out of touch with reality and that offers “changing all the rules” as a final recipe for finding personal happiness.
Conversely, in Brave, when Merida demands her “freedom,” her mother, Queen Elinor, asks, “Are you willing to pay the price your freedom will cost?” A question this film is not brave enough to pose.
The Croods may be set in the Stone Age, but its message is all too indicative of our own postmodern age.
In comparing cave folk to modern man, G.K. Chesterton, in his opus The Everlasting Man, came to the conclusion that little has changed since prehistoric times, noting with his signature economic brilliance, “Man is a revolution not an evolution.” Morally speaking, evolution doesn’t involve “jumping on the sun and riding it to tomorrow,” to use Guy’s phrase, but, rather, following the Son to the Truth.
David DiCerto, former film reviewer for the
Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,
is co-host of Reel Faith on NET NY
with Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus.
CONTENT ADVISORY: The film contains scenes of peril and mildly scary action, as well as some mildly rude humor. Older children and up.