Embracing Change with “The Croods”

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“Fear is good; change is bad.” This is the family motto in DreamWorks’ new 3-D animated feature "The Croods." It’s a storyline that could easily translate to how threatening innovation can feel in our vocational lives.

The Croods are members of a prehistoric family who are forced to embrace change in a crumbling and dangerous world. The film opens with the family running a deadly gauntlet in search of dinner. The mom, Ugga (Catherine Keener), says, “It’s a struggle to find food in a hostile world.” Who can’t relate to that sentiment, rooted as it is in the biblical story of the first family?

The dad, Grug (Nicolas Cage), follows their successful attempt to procure the family’s meager meal with admonitions to “never not be afraid” and “never do anything new or different.” His work ethic is described as “heroic” in a press release. “For Grug, there are no weekends, holidays, or sick days (those haven’t yet been invented); he’s on watch 24/7, 365 days a year,” the release says.

“It’s my job to worry; it’s my job to follow the rules,” Grug tells his family. He keeps them safe, but his overprotectiveness leaves them living impoverished and undernourished lives.

But wait. The story doesn’t end there. His precocious teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone), sneaks out one night and meets a boy—a boy who knows how to make fire and who warns her that the world as they know it is ending. He has “a dream, a mission, a reason to live.” He is the anti-Grug.

The Croods are forced to go on what DreamWorks is marketing as the world’s “first family road trip,” with the boy, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), as their guide.

Grug keeps advocating fear and rule following, while Guy keeps proving the necessity and superiority of adaptation and innovation. It’s almost too much. Grug initially comes off as good-hearted, but foolish. By the end of the film, his superior physical prowess is affirmed as the gift that it is and the family motto is transformed from fear to faith in the future and the Croods’ ability to face it.

At a press conference after the screening I attended in New York City, Cage said it was Grug’s evolution that sold him on the role. “What really got me about Grug is his arc, his emotional transformation. He goes from being this incredibly overprotective father, who’s more like surviving and not living … and then he becomes able to let go and live,” said Cage.

Guy is transformed as well, but more subtly. Before meeting the Croods, he travels the world in the company of a sloth (who also serves as a belt and running commentary side-kick—seriously). In a tender scene in which Guy and Grug are about to die in a tar pit, Guy reveals that he has known deep loss. It turns out that despite his more evolved intelligence, he needs the Croods as much as they need him.

The Croods is a vibrantly colored, fast-paced adventure tale through lush landscapes that are populated with exotic creatures. There are psychedelic “punch monkeys,” “piranahakeets,” and—my favorite—a “macawnivore,” which is a tiger with an over-sized head and the colorization of a Macaw parrot. Writer/director Kirk DeMicco said the Croods were modeled after Olympic athletes to match the bold physicality of their environment.

“We wanted to make it plausible that they could survive a changing and dangerous world, because as we start in a very silly, comedic place, we wanted to always land it in some place more emotional and sincere, and where there’s real peril that we would actually believe that these characters could die,” said DeMicco.

Some viewers may (and did) find The Croods over-stimulating. The theater full of children I saw it with laughed uproariously in all the right places and it occurred to me that The Croods would appeal to their concrete thinking. Being thrust into a prehistoric environment is also a great device for the more mature among us to lose ourselves in a space where ordinary life can be experienced in a fresh way. What would it be like, for example, to be introduced to fire when you’ve always lived in the dark? The scene in which the Croods find out is hysterical, as are many others in the film.

“Grug’s heart is always in the right place,” DeMicco says in the press release. “He’s a great father who’s trying his best, but he’s just in over his head when the Croods embark on their journey.” His wife is strong and loving, but perhaps too deferential until it becomes painfully obvious that Grug is going to get them killed. “In a family that sometimes acts a little nutty, she probably has her head screwed on a little tighter than the rest,” adds Keener.

Cage doesn’t see the film as a children’s movie, he said at the press conference. “I see it as a family movie and children are invited. There’s something in the movie for everyone, and that’s one of the things I really adore about the movie.”

I agree. The Croods may not be a profound work of art, but ultimately it affirms family and community, innovation and convention. It may even encourage you to believe you have what it takes to manage the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

Images © 2013 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission. Post by Christine A. Scheller.