The animated film tells the story of a family -- the titular brood -- of cavemen. There's the dim-witted and gruff but loving father Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage), capable mom Ugga (Catherine Keener), the even-dimmer-witted-than-dad eldest son Thunk (Clark Duke), rebellious free-spirited daughter Eep (Emma Stone), Tasmanian Devil-esque baby Sandy, and Ugga's mother Gran (Cloris Leachman). They live in a cave and venture out every few days into the harsh world in order to find food. While Grug constantly reminds them to always be afraid, Eep dreams of living outside of the darkness.
After sneaking out of the cave one night, Eep meets a human named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a handsome young man who can create fire -- something her Cro-Magnon crew know nothing about. The two hit it off, but their young love takes a backseat when Pangaea begins to break apart, causing massive earthquakes, volcano eruptions, and other disasters that threaten to wipe out the Croods. Grug is forced to team up with Guy, who claims to be able to lead all of them to safety.
What's most striking about The Croods is the picture's state-of-the-art animation -- specifically, the characters' skin. There's an element of photo-realism in how well the filmmakers capture the flexibility and movement of human skin, even going so far as to give Guy a pair of nipples that sends the movie teetering on the brink of the uncanny valley.
In addition, the film utilizes 3-D well, letting the background fall deep into the distance so that the zany action -- best showcased in an elaborate chase in which the family try to steal an egg from a bird -- has the energy of the classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes shorts. That said, the movie doesn't have a rich color palate, though it's hard to set something in the Stone Age and figure out how to fill it with cool colors like purples, reds, and blues. Instead, the film is filled with warm tones like browns and yellows that grow repetitive and dull over the course of its running time.
However, the real problem is the script. Not so much the dialogue, which is functional and occasionally humorous, but more the story itself. Namely, though Eep narrates the opening and claims this is her story, it's really about Grug learning how to grow as a father. The movie refuses to fully commit to either his story or hers, and the result is a lack of focus. In addition, pretty much the entire second act of the film is a bunch of movement without any real goal or purpose; the picture becomes an endless string of arbitrary action scenes that aren't well-motivated or particularly inventive -- especially when held up against that early egg-stealing sequence. It's as if co-directors Chris Sanders (the fabulous-looking How to Train Your Dragon, the very likable Lilo & Stitch) and Kirk De Micco (the execrable Space Chimps) are trying so hard to overcompensate for what they know is the thinnest part of their movie.
This is where The Croods will probably lose parents' interest, though the slapstick elements should keep the kiddies entertained. During the overly long third act, the characters finally learn the lessons you knew they would from the beginning.
The Croods is far from the worst family-friendly film ever made, and some of the movie's technical achievements are genuinely remarkable. Sadly, this Dreamworks project drops the ball exactly where Pixar -- their biggest rival -- inevitably shines.