Cavemen - they're just like us! - or so "The Croods" seems to be saying with its familiar mix of generational clashes, coming-of-age milestones and generally relatable laughs.
The animated adventure features a strong, star-studded cast and dazzles visually in wondrously colorful, vibrant 3-D, but the script doesn't pop off the screen quite so effectively. The overly facile message here is: Trying new things is good. It's a useful notion for kids in the crowd to chew on, but their older companions may be longing for something more substantive. Still, "The Croods" is both brisk and beautiful, and should be sufficiently entertaining for family audiences for whom few such options exist these days.
"The Croods" might be especially resonant with young female viewers, with a strong, resourceful teenage girl at its center named Eep (voiced by Emma Stone in her usual charming rasp). It's the prehistoric era, and while the rest of Eep's family prefers the comforting safety of hiding fearfully inside a cave, with only sporadic outings for group hunts, she longs to see what's outside those stone walls.
Her dad, Grug (Nicolas Cage), is especially protective, neurotically worrying about every possible unknown and urging the same sort of apprehension in everyone else, including his supportive wife, Ugga (an underused Catherine Keener), and doltish 9-year-old son, Thunk (Clark Duke). ("Never not be afraid," is one of dad's favorite sayings.) There's also a sharp-toothed Tasmanian devil of a baby named Sandy and Grug's mother-in-law, voiced in reliably sassy fashion by Cloris Leachman. The gags that depict her as a disapproving nag are more than a bit stale; if there's any heart-tugging or even vaguely engaging bond here, it's the father-daughter one between Grug and Eep.
One day, Eep dares to escape while everyone else is sleeping and meets up with the hottest (and only) guy she's ever seen. Conveniently, he's named Guy, and he's voiced by Ryan Reynolds. He has a furry, impossibly cute companion named Belt who holds up his pants (kids will dig this tiny scene-stealer). But he also astonishes her with something she's never seen before called fire. Guy warns that the world is ending, and that she should come with him if she wants to live. When her family's cave is destroyed, they reluctantly realize they must all go with Guy. This sets up: a) some basic, tried-and-true road trip jokes and b) a blossoming romance between Guy and Eep, which dad naturally tries to stifle.
The themes aren't exactly groundbreaking from co-writers and directors Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco (with John Cleese sharing a story-by credit, having been a part of early drafts of the script), and the plot feels too repetitive with the Croods encountering one unexplored terrain after another and responding in predictable ways.
But the oohs, ahhs and scattered laughs come from the various creatures the Croods discover along their journey, including the hungry, hot-pink piranha birds, the upside-down pear bears and the fearsome bear owls. Much of the lush landscape and vivid details feel as if they were taken directly from "Avatar," and a similar sense of wonder propels these stronger segments. The lighting can indeed be magical, so it's no surprise that we are urged over and over again to step into it.
"The Croods," from DreamWorks Animation, is rated PG for some scary action. Running time: 92 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.