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The Berlinale Blog: Crood pleasures

Ben Knight drew the short straw and got to review this year’s popcorn closer at the Berlinale – 3D animation The Croods, voiced by Nic Cage, Emma Stone and Catherine Keener.

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For the other Exberliner bloggers, getting picked to review the Berlinale’s traditional closing popcorn flick is a short straw, but I always embrace the challenge with relish, and then I put that relish all over my nachos. And yes I’ll have extra jalapenos and two litres of Diet Coke with that. I was there, in the Berlinale Palast on many a final Friday, amongst the wreckage of jaded, red-eyed critics who have just sat through 20 movies of world cinema (mainly Hungarian Roma and Sinti getting raped and shot and/or Kazakh teenagers getting tortured), to witness 2009’s Pink Panther 2 – in which Steve Martin and Jean Reno tortured themselves trying to get 10 minutes of comedy mileage out of putting shaving foam on each other’s faces – and 2011’s Unknown – in which Diane Kruger played a completely plausible Bosnian waitress in a Turkish café in Kreuzberg, and Bruno Ganz cheerfully shat on his entire career. No matter what cinematic crime is being wrought on the screen, in the Berlinale’s vast central auditorium, the relief always rises off the collected cinematic intelligentsia like sweaty steam in a giant sauna.  

So imagine my delight at The Croods, a 3D “animated adventure” about a prehistoric family, voiced by the talents of Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, and Catherine Keener. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a great picture. It’s nowhere near the genius of The Incredibles, which it resembles in that it’s a cartoon version of a sitcom-typical American family. It’s not even as good as Ice Age or The Flintstones, which it resembles in that it’s basically similar but slightly different.

But it has plenty of other charms. For one thing, it’s the most breath-taking children’s cartoon I’ve ever seen. Never has so much technical ingenuity and painstaking digital detail been put to the service of gags about big rocks falling on animals’ heads. It’s as if a team of animators had spent years chained to a bank of PCs until they had recreated the perfect simulacra of a computer-generated Wile E. Coyote so that Road Runner could drop an anvil on him. Or as if James Cameron had decided to scrap the script for Avatar 2 and make a $500-million Tom and Jerry cartoon instead.

Its other chief charm is that it plays fast and loose with evolutionary history, feverishly inventing about five new ancient species in every scene, like some deranged zoological Frankenstein – giant carnivorous flowers, parrots with four wings and tortoise shells, elephant-mice, whale-hippos, and – my favourite – the quite terrifying “Piranhakeets”. The Croods does to evolution what Inglourious Basterds did to World War II, and even though evolutionary biologists might baulk at the finer details, its artistic heart is in the right place – more evolutionary than creationist.

In other ways, though, it is a lot more traditional. While The Croods follows recent animations like Brave in being bold enough to have a female lead, the ostensible central character (and narrator), a teenager called Eep, is quickly subsumed by Nic Cage’s father character, Grug. Eep ends up merely doing whatever her sophisticated new boyfriend tells her to, but Grug is the one who undergoes the spiritual journey. As for The Croods’ “mom” character – and remember that her equivalent in The Incredibles was one of the reasons that film had such narrative verve – remains so underdeveloped as to be virtually invisible.

But still, despite its faults (I didn’t mention that The Croods spends way too much time hammering on about its moral – that it’s better to take risks than “never be not afraid”) and if all else fails, the exhilarating spectacle of this film will simply bludgeon you and your under-12 children until you are damn well entertained.