I think we can all agree that at least in some respects all children are Neanderthals. It is the grand challenge of parenthood to civilize these sometimes savage little creatures by teaching them language, manners, and keeping safe. And some of the most difficult choices parents must make come when we try to encourage children to be strong, brave, independent, and adventuresome when it comes to accomplishing goals in school, sports, and chores while protecting them from mistakes that could be hurtful or even devastating.
That’s the idea behind sweet new animated film about a prehistoric cave family. Familiar family dynamics are amusingly exaggerated in the Paleolithic setting, where the most basic necessities require everyone’s full-time attention. The heavy-boned characters designed by the brilliantly witty Carter Goodrich (“Despicable Me,” “Hotel Transylvania”) may argue with each other, but they demonstrate the strength of their bond on the hunting/gathering expedition. When this family goes out to get breakfast, they really go out to get breakfast. In a joyously-choreographed race to get food, parents Grug (Nicolas Cage) and Ugga (Catherine Keener), Ugga’s mother Gran (Cloris Leachman), and their three children work seamlessly together somewhere between extreme dodgeball, an obstacle course, and a rugby game. Even the happily feral baby joins in for a crucial maneuver.
Other than that, they stay inside the cold, dark, cave. None of the other families of their community have survived, and Grug is terrified of anything that he cannot control. So he tells his family that “curiosity is bad and anything that is new is bad” and insists that they all stay inside together. Keeping everyone alive is his full-time job. “Never not be afraid,” he warns them. “Fear keeps us alive.” “I will never do anything new or different,” promises his son Thunk (Clark Duke). But rebellious teenagers go back as far as protective fathers, and Eep wants to explore the world outside the cave. What Grug sees as safe and under control, Eep sees as boring and old-fashioned.
That bigger world Eep wants to see includes a stranger, a guy named Guy (Ryan Reynolds). He has a lot of new ideas like tools, shoes, a “belt” (a monkey with a theatrical flair for flourish), and “baby suns” — fire. Eep wants to learn more. And soon Grug has to make changes because the tectonic plates start to shift beneath him. Staying the same is no longer safe. The family must leave the cave to find a new place to live. Grug has to learn that sometimes new is not bad. And Eep has to learn the value of what she already has.
Kids will enjoy outsmarting the Neanderthals, whose experience of the world is so limited that they think fire can be extinguished by dry grass and they will marvel at the notion that there had to be a first-ever hug. They will get a kick out of Guy as a proto-MacGyver who shows his traveling companions how to use rocks, vines, leaves — and strategy — to trap food and protect themselves from predators. As Grug and his family leave their rocky home they find new environments that are increasingly dazzling, with spectacularly imagined vistas and gorgeous vegetation. Those images nicely parallel the opening minds and spirits of Grug and his family. Despite a few too many mother-in-law jokes, “The Croods” nicely makes it clear that even before they had fire, families understood how important it was to cherish and protect each other. And Eep reminds us that what may feel like teenage obstinacy and foolhardiness may just be the next step in our evolution.
Parents should know that this movie has some scary animals and children and adults in peril, with references to sad off-screen deaths. There is brief crude humor and there are repeated jokes about Grug wishing that his mother-in-law would die.
Family discussion: How can you tell when it is time to try new things and time to stick with what you know? What did Guy and Grug learn from each other?
If you like this, try: Visit a museum or do some research in books to look at prehistoric fossils and bones and watch “The Land Before Time,” the “Ice Age” series, and “The Flintstones”