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In Movies & TV Reviews

Meet the Croods, the titular stars of Dreamworks's latest animated success.

"The Croods" a rock solid animated adventure for all ages

Most animated movies – save for Pixar, but even they've gotten in a bit of a mild rut – use the same general story outlines. It's normally some sort of moral about believing in oneself, working together or, the most popular arc of late, the relationship between parent and child.

"The Croods," the latest animated picture to come out of Dreamworks, follows the last formula pretty closely. Yet somehow, the movie finds new nuances, angles, jokes and emotional notes, and mixes those with the kind of beautiful, lush, colorful and imaginative cartoon worlds you would expect from a high-end animated picture. It results in easily the studio's best film since 2010's "How to Train Your Dragon."

Nicolas "Not the bees!" Cage leads a star-studded but not showy voice cast as Grug, the father of a band of prehistoric survivors. Together, they hunt for meager amounts of food during the day and hide in their dark, rocky cave at night … or whenever anything dangerous is in the area, which according to the wildly protective Grug, is pretty much all the time. His motto is "Never not be afraid."

These strict rules don't play well with Eep (delightfully voiced by Emma Stone), the rascally, adventure-seeking teenager in the family. She wants to see the world, and after meeting a handsome young inventor named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), she only wants to see and explore even more.

She and the rest of the Croods – including mom Ugga (Catherine Keener), Gran (Cloris Leachman), naively lunk-headed brother Thunk (Clark Duke) and baby Sandy (supervising sound editor Randy Thom) – get their chance to see the world when their cave is destroyed in a monumental rockslide.

According to Guy, that's just the start of a colossal tectonic shift that will drop most of the known world into a fiery abyss. Thus begins the first family road trip, with a few life lessons and discoveries – like fire, shoes and puppet shows – picked up along the way.

Co-director Chris Sanders also worked on "How to Train Your Dragon," and much like his previous project, "The Croods" starts on a mildly rough note. There's a lot of misplaced, over-caffeinated energy, and the action and chaos seem to draw more of the script's attention than the characters. Luckily, the gorgeously imaginative animation – the prehistoric world is filled with strangely fascinating animal combos and unique creature hybrids like a saber-toothed tiger with colorful fur reminiscent of a parrot – and its lively charm make the rocky start easy to forgive.

The movie soon settles into a fun, pleasant groove, both in its story and its sense of humor. The script milks the various inventions and innovations for as many laughs as possible and finds a cutely amusing minor character in Belt (voiced by Sanders), a long-armed sloth that hangs out with Guy. He provides timely dramatic music cues, plays a mean old-timey xylophone and – as you'd expect with a name like Belt – helps to keep Guy's pants up.

None of the humor quite reaches uproarious levels, but what "The Croods" lacks in massive belly laughs, it makes up for in cleverness and especially heart. The animated storyline involving a father having to learn to let go is nothing new, but Sanders and co-writer Kirk DeMicco still manage to find fresh emotional material.

The relationship between Grug and Eep is nicely developed, and Guy fits quite naturally into the family drama as he slowly, inadvertently replaces Grug as the leader of the group. Grug's jealousy works for some laughs, but most impressively, it makes for the kind of earnest and touching drama that is normally reserved for Pixar features. I'd be lying if I said the waterworks weren't going off a bit during the final act (thank God for the 3-D glasses).

The film's big-name voice cast aids all of this with performances worthy of their paychecks. Cage does some of his best work since the early '00s – though we still get a classic bizarre Cage delivery on the line, "He's loose!" – and Stone exudes a ton of contagious energy and sweet enthusiasm. Together with Reynolds – also quite good, if a bit more undistinguished vocally – they help sell the comedy and drama and give even the most formulaic moments charming life.

"The Croods" may not reinvent the wheel, but it's a great example of what the wheel can do when done right.

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