Dreamworks has done it again. After a weak(ish) effort that was Rise of the Guardians, this unexpectedly quick follow up film is not only effective entertainment with strong character designs and character interactions, especially between the main characters, it is a very watchable and rewatchable family film with thematic layers deeper than I expected for a film targeted mostly at children (I will discuss these themes in the spoiler section). In fact, I think some of this story speaks even strongly to parents, especially dads.
There were lots of memorable scenes, the dialogues were funny, pointy and very quotable. The visuals are strong although I wouldn't say it's anything groundbreaking. It is the good quality animation Dreamworks has been producing with regularity in the past few years and I am glad that they've still got new ideas coming out of their warehouses.
I'm not very big fan of prehistoric settings in films, films like The Flintstones, 10000 BC, Brother Bear, Year One and to a lesser extent Ice Age are all in my bad books for various reasons, the only two films with this type of setting I enjoyed are Jurassic Park (which is technically not prehistoric anyway) and The Land Before Time (as a kid). The Croods may be my first positively rated prehistoric film, although it does suffer from too much modern day references, it isn't distracting to the point of forgetting that they are neanderthals.
The romance between the main romantic couple isn't shoved down your throat. While their connection is more fixated on a shared dream than on each other, you don't get the sense that the screenwriter is forcing you to accept their love, but rather they know you've already accepted it as the story unfolds.
And most importantly, we finally get a great father character in animation! In the form of Grug, we finally get to see parenting issues from the father's side; not where he has to juggle between his work and home, not because he is also a king or superhero, not when he's having a mid life crisis, but where his only job and goal is to protect and provide for his family. The story explores his beliefs, values and motivations in a very brisk manner but you can definitely see strong character design and development that went behind every one liner and over-the-top expression.
So if you haven't seen this film, I definitely recommend a watch. You won't get much more out of it from the theatres or 3D, so feel free to wait for the DVD, but it is definitely one of the stronger films I've seen this year, animation or not.
8.0 / 10.0
Like I mentioned earlier, the strongest thing about this film are the characters. In particular three: Grug the father, Guy the...guy, and Epp the daughter/main character. While it is debatable whether Eep is technically a lead heroine in this story, as much of the first act focuses on the narrative of the Croods from her perspective, I think that she only takes the limelight at the beginning. The focus is passed around a bit, mostly with her father Grug. Guy is stronger than your average Disney prince, but only slightly as he doesn't really develop much as a character. It is however quite fun to watch him interact as his more sophisticated, educated neanderthal with the more barbaric violent family, who on multiple occasions almost kills guy just by being rough to him.
One of the main themes explored by these three characters are respect for wisdom of the past (Yesterday) versus the risk-taking courage to embrace what the future my bring (Tomorrow). We see this contrast most profoundly through their story telling in the middle of the film where Grug is very grounded in his beliefs that new things are bad, and we must tread carefully when doing or trying anything different. Guy obviously believes you should live life trying new things and new ideas.
However these two beliefs are not polar opposites because their drives are different. Grug applies his philosophy out of concern for his family (as well as a bit of ego since he likes to be proven right), while Guy applies his philosophy because he's already lost his family, thus we do have to be careful when taking the message out of context to our real world.
You would think that the story would center around Eep trying to choose between her father and Guy's way of life, but no. She clearly has already chosen Guy's adventurous, future-looking lifestyle, but the issue is more that she wants to win her father over to the other side and not just run there herself. This in a way helps glue all the characters together. Evidently Guy would've been fine if only Eep believed him and joined him on their escape from "the end", but for Eep she needed her whole family to come along.
The film also avoids addressing Eep's personal relationship with Grug fully for most of the film. They hint at a few scenes that she does feel guilty she has to argue with her dad about the right course of action every time, and during the climax of the film, you see Eep does in fact love her father very deeply underneath her frustrations and discontentment of his overbearing and outdated ways, when it came time to say goodbye she wasn't ready to because she realise there's so much they have yet to reconcile.
The sacrificial decision the father makes at end was also a very powerful and redemptive moment which I thought is much stronger than most main characters in other recent Dreamworks and Pixar films in terms of role models. At the end of his character arc Grug accepts that he is not able to become like Guy, but he finally believes that Guy can and will protect his family at least as good as he did, perhaps better, which is why he is willing to leave his family in the hands of guy when he threw all of them over the canyon and (presumably) giving up his own life. While I didn't tear up over that scene, I did remember thinking to myself "this is the best way they could have ended his character arc". But of course being a children's film they have to make sure he makes it too for a happily ever after.
A secondary theme that is touched on through most of the film is on the nature of invention. It gently walks us through man's discovery of fire, to the invention of more modern clothing, to use of objects as instruments of sound and music, surprisingly most of Guy's inventions are shown in the order they were historically discovered by humanity as well, so there you go, some accurate depiction of our past!
Then there is also Grug's set of inventions which he drafts up out of jealousy of Guy's new-found respect from his family. You can sort of tell that they are not as helpful to their journey to escape armageddon, which implies that not all new ideas are good or necessary. If you pursue new things for the sake of newness (as Grug tries in a desperate bid to regain his family's respect), they don't have the same weight as inventions that are functional and needs-driven.
This debate of self-improvement vs self-indulgence in innovation is a very relevant issue in today's society: the contrast between Grug and Guy's creations are allegorical to modern technology like smartphones vs. smartphone accessories. How you want to take their proposition is up to you but I think best to refer to Maslow's hierarchy of needs to decide when technology can afford to be more frivilous.