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We’re all familiar with “prehistoric” man. Thanks to popular images of the barbaric caveman, many people now believe man was once a bearded primitive, living in the darkness of cave dwellings with little to eat and survival the only thing on his undeveloped mind. But according to DreamWorks in the company’s latest animated flick, The Croods, these humans from ages past were much more similar to families in our own modern era.
Is it possible that a contemporary, secular film about a prehistoric family would not support the Theory of Evolution by showing a vastly different, unevolved human? Judging by The Croods, the answer to that question would be yes and no. In many ways, this children’s animated flick brings aspects of Evolutionary theory to life, creating animals that look much like “missing links” and showing a gradual, but catastrophic evolution of the Earth. Yet for better or for worse, The Croods plays with several irons in the fire, some of which end up contradicting Evolution.
The Theory of Evolution is not, however, the central focus of this film. Rather, The Croods aims to entertain children while telling them a family-themed story. For a movie called The Croods, this film is not as crude as one might expect, avoiding offensive language and bathroom or body humor. Sadly, that effort to make the movie family-friendly erupts with the deluge of violence disguised as slapstick that floods the story.
The redemptive themes that emerge at last—movingly encouraging familial love and the importance of fathers—are still not strong enough to survive the previous violence and negative messages that prove to be the fittest.
Eep Crood is tired of living cooped up in a cave. The darkness of the cave may look like safety to her overprotective father and the rest of her easily terrified family, but for Eep, it’s a prison. No matter how much she pleads or argues, Grug, Eep’s father, refuses to listen. He’s convinced that the cave is the safest place for his family, and he chastises Eep constantly for her dangerous “curiosity.”
But Eep just can’t seem to help herself. She has a tremendous longing to “follow the light.” One night, she gets her chance when she is lured from the cave by a mysterious, glowing light that she has never seen. More trouble than she ever imagined comes her way after her adventure outside the cave, but not all of it is her fault.
It turns out that the cave is no longer safe because the world around it is falling apart. Climatic changes the Croods cannot understand force them on a journey for which they are terribly unprepared. Bickering and complaining as they go, the Croods may end up destroying each other before the disintegrating Earth or wild animals kill them. Or, they may do away with Guy, the young man who comes along in time to save the Croods from themselves.
Eep intends to keep the inventive Guy for herself and break free from her father in the meantime, but this adventure does not follow her itinerary. Instead, dangers and epiphanies appear at every turn, forcing this divided family and fellow travelers to learn that there are more important things in life than survival.
Whatever happened to “survival of the fittest?” Survival of the luckiest would be more apt for this film. Whether intentional or not, the “survival of the fittest” aspect of Evolution is thoroughly debunked in The Croods. For starters, the featured prehistoric family is far from the most “fit” members of their species. Inexplicably, most of the family members are much chunkier than one would expect from people who barely find enough food to support the three adults (Gran shares the cave with the family), two teens, and one little girl called Baby.
They seem to be gifted with enough running speed to keep up with most wild animals and Grug is impressively strong, but those qualities are only enough to nearly get them all killed in the daily effort to secure an egg that is only big enough for four of them to get a little taste. The Croods lack intelligence, skills, and even the physical fitness that would put them in the “fittest” category.
Grug believes that his mantra of “never no fear,” which he uses to encourage his family to avoid anything “new or different,” is their key to survival. With his conviction that “fear keeps us alive,” Grug could be a spokesperson for the Evolution survival theory. After all, many wild animals supposedly survive because they are afraid of the unfamiliar, so the same approach should work for humans. Here, again, this film flips the theory on its head when the Croods eventually learn that “never be afraid,” living without fear, is the better, happier way.
The Theory of Evolution receives a fatal blow at the film’s climax, which is also the height of the most positive message in The Croods. In this gripping, emotionally moving sequence, the Croods undeniably disregard survival for the higher motive of love as they jeopardize their own safety for a lost family member.
This moment is the hinge that surprisingly swings The Croods from being a simplistic and shallow film of non-stop slapstick to instead offering what is arguably the most heroic portrayal of a father in contemporary children’s films. Grug does not begin the film as a hero. On the contrary, he appears to be the stereotypical bumbling father who is clueless when it comes to his daughter and most other matters. Overbearing and ignorant, Grug keeps Eep and the rest of his family trapped in a cave, resisting change or insight from anyone, even when those ideas are right. Essentially, he is the antagonist father of modern films, standing in the way of his daughter’s noble desires.
The most surprising twist of the film’s plot, then, comes with the shift from dad-bashing to dad-honoring. In a dramatic sequence of events, Grug emerges as The Croods’ greatest hero and strongest asset. He proves not only that he can change, but that, in some ways, he did not need to change, since he was already a man who would sacrifice everything, including his own survival, for his family.
Strangely, this meaningful plotline only emerges toward the end of the film and is accomplished through a sudden switch of viewpoint character, from Eep to Grug. Eep is the focus of most of the film, as the usual young woman/girl heroine bursting with longing for adventure in the great wide world. Toward the climax, however, the story is ripped away from Eep to follow Grug’s struggle to survive and/or save his family. This abrupt change in point of view is a definite flaw in the script, but, as it turns out, is a beneficial one, since the shift brings about an emotional depth and inspirational message of love, sacrifice, and respect that the film otherwise lacked.
An additional valuable lesson comes out of Grug’s change, as he learns to reject fear and instead embrace life. Rather than viewing fear as something good that should be encouraged, Grug sees that there is much more to living than cowering under a false sense of security. “No more hiding. No more caves,” he promises, telling his daughter that “the point of all this” is “to follow the light.”
Following the light in general and the sun, specifically, is an ongoing theme of the movie that nicely matches the biblical concept of walking in the light, rather than darkness. However, Scripture uses the symbolism of light to signify righteousness and darkness to represent evil, whereas The Croods seems to intend light to mean freedom, courage, and happiness. While this idea is not completely wrong, its inadequacy means that a distinction should be made between the Christian use of light vs. dark and this film’s intention. For the Croods and Guy, their mantra to “follow the sun” or “the light” sounds inspiring, but does not represent any commitment to the light of God, real truth, or even morality.
Their faith in the sun is misplaced, to be sure, but at least the Croods’ move out of darkness and into light is a first step toward positive change. Being the leader that he is, Grug’s transformation in this direction enables his whole family to pursue a more joyful life with gusto, as they replace fear with a greater love for each other and for the gift of life.
The change to honoring Grug and the whole family’s movement away from fear, toward truly loving each other are almost enough to make up for the negative content that viewers are privy to for the other three-quarters of The Croods. In typical animated flick fashion, of late, the heroine presents several of the movie’s problems. Eep’s “prehistoric” costume, for one, leaves more coverage to be desired. Sufficiently modest on the top, her super-short tunic shows all of her legs and, in some moments, the briefs she wears underneath.
If she were just a little girl, this costume may not be as much of an issue, but given Guy’s reaction to her and her desire for cuddling with him, it’s clear she’s of a womanly age and attraction. Thankfully, the filmmakers chose to keep an air of innocence with the romance in The Croods and limit the young couple’s affectionate interactions to some embraces.
More of Guy and Eep’s interactions are actually rough and uncomfortable, rather than romantic. Apparently, the filmmakers’ interpretation of “prehistoric” man equals a ridiculous affinity for violence and unbelievable ability to recover from it. When Eep first meets Guy, for example, her reaction, after pulling back just before she killed him, is to flip him around, throw him, poke him, and squeeze him so hard that he blacks out. (Taking the new feminist style of movie heroines a step farther, Eep is much stronger and heavier than Guy.) Grug performs a similar ritual when he meets Guy for the first time, just before stuffing Guy into a hollow log for transport.
Think the Croods would treat each other better? Not a chance. Instead, this family is so bent on violence that its leader Grug, in a telling scene, casually picks up the elderly Gran and tosses her on the ground (where she lands painfully on her head) in the equivalent of a coin toss. This violence is only a symptom of Grug’s apparent hatred for his mother-in-law, as the film makes it clear that he wishes she were dead. At several times in the story, the hope that Gran will die is actually Grug’s motivation for his actions. No wonder, then, that Grug’s children throw rocks and words at him with the same kind of disrespect and dislike that he shows to his elder, Gran.
The violence toward Gran, who returns the favor with insults whenever possible, is only one of countless examples of this type of content throughout The Croods. Nearly every scene in the movie has some type of injury inflicted on someone, usually by another character, but occasionally by the nature around them. Even Gran attempts to eat her grandson’s foot in one scene. The greatest harm of this content comes in the presentation, which is always comedic, intended to garner laughs from a desensitized audience. And desensitized is definitely what children will be after being made to laugh at this much violence without apology and pain without lasting injury.
Another harmful effect on children may come from the manner in which Eep’s disobedience to her parents is portrayed. Every step of the way in this film, the story glorifies disobedience and rebelliousness. To his credit, Guy is the only character who makes an effort to respect and honor authority figures, but he is not even in the Crood family. Among the family members the example is decidedly different, as the plot centers around the consistent disobedience and disrespect that Eep displays.
This negative message could have been corrected with the more positive portrayal of Grug at the end of the film if not for one, subtle trick—as the story shifts to focus on Grug, this beleaguered father also ends up coming around to Eep’s way of thinking. Thus, even The Croods’ most important message is at least partially undermined by the fact that Eep is easily able to love and respect a father who has come around to seeing that she was right all along.
In this way, Eep’s disregard for her father’s commands and opinions in the earlier portions of the picture are shown to have been right and for the good of all concerned. The positive power of disobedience and the belief that younger generations are always right are not exactly the kind of messages most parents want their kids learning at the movies.
This flip-flopping between positive and negative themes is the problem with The Croods. Some of the usual problematic content is absent in this film, and the story ultimately presents an important message that is desperately needed in our father-deficient culture.
To top it off, the film also features animation that is nothing short of stunning, taking full advantage of the imaginative possibilities offered by this story. Inventive creatures populate the screen in vivid colors amid breathtaking scenery. In addition, the human characters are brought to life with a new level of authenticity for animation that comes closer to the feel of seeing actual people onscreen.
Yet even the highest level of filmmaking (which this extremely unrealistic and flawed script does not actually offer) and redemptive messages are sometimes not enough to make up for the amount of negative content that has to be viewed and absorbed along the way. For guardians of youngsters’ impressionable minds, the stakes are high and the standards need be also.
Forget “survival of the fittest.” This is “survival of the discerning,” and in the battle for the hearts and minds of our children, it’s life or death.
Check out these movies instead:
The Incredibles (Disney, 2004)
Up (Pixar, 2009)
An American Tail (Universal Pictures, 1986)