‘The Croods’

The prehistoric Croods survey their new land“The Croods” invites kids and parents to take (pre)history’s first road trip, a journey into a primordial world of the imagination filled with flora and fauna and creatures that never existed but, by gosh, they should’ve.

And DreamWorks animators make certain you believe in them if only for 98 minutes

“The Croods” is a likable though light 3D cartoon that makes a fine placeholder for family audiences until the next Pixar blockbuster appears. DreamWorks Animation has mastered 3D animation as well as any animation group but not the amazing storytelling prowess of Pixar.

Increasingly DreamWorks animators have retreated into action and slapstick rather than challenge the heady imaginative flights of fancy conjured up by John Lasseter and the gang.

Nothing wrong with this, of course, and “The Croods” reps one of the company’s better efforts since the action takes place in a world of startling beauty and striking life forms.

Its DNA contains more than a little from the old Warner Bros. cartoon shorts wherein no physical disaster can ever kill a character and laws of gravity, physiology and for that matter all sciences are suspended.

The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote would be right at home in this prehistoric world.

The Croods (pronounced Crudes) are an early family of frightened Homo sapiens, who seldom venture from the safety of their cave home. Their hunter/gatherer skills consist mainly of daytime hunts for large eggs through a minefield of swift predators.

These early humans don’t mind getting down on all fours — this helps in the constant flight from larger creatures, in fact — and have rubbery bodies that bounce back from momentary injury.

Croods family swings through jungleFamily head Grud (given gruff, frustrated voice by Nicolas Cage) preaches that “fear keeps us alive.” But the youngsters aren’t so sure. Certainly not Eep (a tenacious Emma Stone) — it almost sounds like Eve — who loves to sunbathe, climb and frolic outside, indeed to do anything outside, away from that hideously dull cave.

As for survival, she asks the existential question: “What’s the point of all this” if survival does not include a bit of fun?

Fun comes soon enough with cataclysmic events including earthquakes and eruptions that appear to be the action of many millennia of plate tectonics at warp-speed.

When the cave is ruined, the family has no choice but to get out of the house. This group includes the mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), Gran (Cloris Leachman), a somewhat thick-headed elder son Thunk (Clark Duke) and a ferocious toddler named Sandy (no voice, only growls and grunts).

Emma Stone's Eep tries to stay in sunlightEep is the first to encounter Guy (Ryan Reynolds), clearly a more advanced human, who not only knows how to start a fire he inexplicably has foreknowledge of the impending catastrophe. Grug clings to his doubts but has little choice but to let his family follow Guy to the land of “Tomorrow.”

The cataclysmic forces somehow change the entire landscape. What began as an almost arid desert of craggy formations and canyons — Zion National Park was the inspiration here — morphs into something akin to James Cameron’s Pandora, an explosion of color, great vistas and verdant jungles.

Its creatures include a flock of birds that can only be described as flying piranha, a long-limbed monkey-like creature Guy uses as a belt (and sidekick), a dog-crocodile that likes to play fetch and a large tiger/pussy cat combination that forever pursues the Croods.

There are many more. Indeed the film is less concerned with plot then introductions to creatures and landscapes. It follows, in other words, the path laid down by Fox’s “Ice Age” cartoons only with prehistoric men instead of creatures venturing into new terrain.

It’s all terribly inventive — and then again it’s not. Nothing is more prehistoric in comedy than mother-in-law joke and this cartoon is full of ’em. The film also owes, as was said, a deep bow to Chuck Jones and the “Termite Terrace” crew.

Much imagination went into art and character design but not as much into the characters themselves. Nevertheless, the 3D is put to good use in dramatizing the Croods’ constant escapes and misadventures.

The script by the film’s clever directors, Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco with an assist from none other than John Cleese, keeps up a fast-and-furious pace with a gag coming about every 10 seconds. And not for a moment does the screen not contain eye-catching visuals.

Opens: March 22, 2013 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: DreamWorks Animation SKG
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman
Directors/screenwriters: Chris Sanders & Kirk DeMicco
Story by: John Cleese, Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco
Producers: Kristine Belson, Jane Hartwell
Director of photography: Yong Duk Jhun
Production designer: Christophe Lautrette
Music: Alan Silvestri
Editors: Eric Dapkewicz, Darren T. Holmes
PG rating, 98 minutes