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Article updated: 3/21/2013 1:45 PM

Charm, creativity combine in caveman comedy 'Croods'

By Dann Gire

Grug the caveman believes that curiosity killed the saber-toothed tiger.

So he keeps his wife Ugga, rebellious teen cavedaughter Eep, his caveson Thunk (past-tense of Think), his precocious baby and their crabby cavegranny huddled up inside a dark hole in the mountain, venturing out only to grab some fast food (and sometimes it moves really fast).

"Fear keeps us alive!" Grug lectures. "Never not be afraid!"

So, these poor Neanderthals don't exactly enjoy an active social life.

But things are about to change. Eep tells us this in her superfluous voice-over narration that sets up the evolution-is-good premise in DreamWorks' funny, fast-paced 3-D animated comedy "The Croods."

This is not your parent's "Flintstones." That was a smart, sophisticated re-imagining of Jackie Gleason's classic TV series "The Honeymooners" as caveman sitcom.

"The Croods" appeals more to the much younger "Ice Age" demographic that will thrill to the plethora of 3-D chases, life-threatening spectacles and a rudimentary, juvenile sense of humor.

Grug is played by Nicolas Cage, whose quasi-monotone delivery hardly makes him an ideal voice-over artist, especially for a broad, animated figure much cartoonier than we're used to in such works as "Brave" and "ParaNorman."

Eep is voiced by Emma Stone, whose throaty pipes bring her athletically muscular, unDisney-like heroine to full-bodied life. She constantly sneaks out of the cave against Grug's orders.

One night, she witnesses a piece of magic: a flickering light in the distance. It's a fiery torch wielded by a stranger, a guy named Guy.

With his cool coif and nifty clothes, Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) clearly ranks higher on the evolutionary scale than Neanderthal Eep.

He warns Eep that there's a whole new world on its way. She and her family must leave their cave before earthquakes and other disasters strike the region. (How Guy can predict geological events and weather patterns remains one of the story's great mysteries.)

Guy, smitten with Eep's intoxicating voice and ninja-like physical prowess, volunteers to help Grug's family escape to a safer place.

Grug asks, "Where?"

"Tomorrow!" Guy replies. (Does this sound like typical Disney dialogue, or a lead-in for "Annie"?)

Written and directed with charm and obvious joy by Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders, this cleverly constructed tale is filled with wondrous, fantastical creatures such as the Crocopup (a canine/crocodile combo) and the Piranhakeets (flocks of cute little birds that can strip dinosaurs to the bones in seconds).

Pay attention to all the seemingly innocuous details and throwaway scenes. DeMicco and Sanders bring them all together at the end to create a whimsically amusing finale. No comic bit or narrative detail gets wasted here.

(Uncredited Monty Python member John Cleese wrote an early draft of "The Croods," so you get an idea of its quirky creative origins.)

For all of its engaging visuals and "Flintstone" homages (Grug has a caveman's version of a Polaroid camera), most of the good stuff gets tossed to Grug, Guy and Eep.

Ugga (Catherine Keener), Thunk ("Office" star Clark Duke) and Gran (Cloris Leachman) get shortchanged; they're mostly just family filler. Sandy the baby doesn't even talk.

But Grug does, and Cage's flat delivery can't sell a line like "Take us to your tomorrow!" to save his animated life.

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