Fear Keeps Us Alive
“With every sun comes a new day, a new beginning, a new hope that things will be better,” narrates Eep (Emma Stone) at the start of The Croods. “Except for me.” Poor Eep. Not only is she a teenager with an overprotective dad and a screaming baby sister, but she’s also living in the Paleolithic era. And that means she and her family are cave people, with sloping foreheads and thick limbs, and names that sound more like body noises than words. As you see right away during an exceptionally acrobatic action sequence, they’re strong and fast and effective hunters, but not so quick when it comes to having ideas.
Eep’s father Grug (Nicolas Cage) is especially averse to ideas. He asserts repeatedly that he’s kept his family safe by keeping them contained, by limiting their movements and also their imaginations. He keeps everyone close to him, in a cave, where it’s dark and where the large, loud, sharp-toothed creatures with whom the Croods share the planet won’t be able to reach them and so tear them to bits. “Never not be afraid,” Grug tells his children. “Fear keeps us alive.”
But Eep is not afraid. She wants to spend time outside in the sunlight, to see places she hasn’t seen before. And so, like so many movie teenagers before her, Eep ventures forth from the cave. And here, one evening, she meets a boy named Guy (Ryan Reynolds). At once thoughtful and sensitive and inclined to adventure, he brings with him a special treat, something he calls “fire,” which she takes at first to be the sun, or a piece of it anyway. The interaction reveals the challenges they might provide for one another. When he blows on the fire because it’s “dying,” then tells Eep that it’s not “alive,” she points out the contradiction and he’s impressed, much as he is on discovering that she’s a formidable adversary hand-to-hand. She, in turn, is drawn to his -not-Grogness. This is a kid with lots of ideas, a fondness for the light, and a (requisite) sidekick he wears on his waist, a ferrety sort of animal he calls Belt (co-director Chris Sanders).
The conflict between Eep and her father is thus redirected into an argument over Guy, one that’s extended into the outdoors and the plot going forward, when the cave is destroyed by an earthquake Guy identifies as “just the beginning of the end.” Here Guy becomes both the ideal romantic object for Eep and her father’s most dreaded nightmare. Try as he might to chase off the newcomer, Grug soon discovers he has need of him too, as Guy turns out to have a plan for What Happens Next—that is, escape to a faraway mountain, high ground where the coming lava and floodwaters can’t reach them.
And so, before you can say Ice Age, the cave people—including Eep’s sensible mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), ornery grandmother (Cloris Leachman), dopey brother Thunk (Clark Duke), and sensationally feral sister Sandy (Randy Thom)—are actually walking upright and in daylight for days. And they are also evolving, exploring the world beyond the dark cave, learning about themselves and each other and bonding too, in spite of themselves. Grug offers a particularly antic performance of what he understands to be the guy with ideas, with a wig of roots made to resemble Guy’s dreds and a couple of articulated thoughts.
That his family rejects his faux guyness in favor of the seeming real guyness makes for some mild generational tension, viewed mostly through Eep’s eyes. The old man is afraid, the young man is not, the old man is stalwart, the young one is lithe. This doesn’t make dad irrelevant, just in need of direction, and he dos, indeed, contribute crucially and according to his own skills and genetic gifts when the time comes.
The tests afforded for the cave people include traipsing over landscapes that range from rocky and spare to lush and colorful, contending with beasts that charge at the camera with jaws snapping to show off the 3D animation (these include a humungous sabre-toothed tiger and swarms of flesh-eating red birdies, apparently called “Piranhakeets”), as well as sliding down mountainsides or pitching off cliffs. All this demonstrates not only that our heroes awfully sturdy, but that the film, for all its attention to the family dynamics, is fundamentally an exercise in stretching out a series of action episodes, most familiar already from other movies, ranging from Avatar and Shrek, to Hotel Transylvania and even a bit of Brave.
As Eep develops a crush on Guy and asserts her own preference for “the light,” and as the family survives a series of rumbles and rainstorms and shifting tectonic plates, they realize that being afraid is actually not the best way to live. And as Grug and Eep articulate this important life lesson, you know the child next to you is just waiting for the next tiger to jump out.