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'The Croods': Project's evolution unkind to animated cave dwellers ★★

It's "Ice Age" with humans and less ice. "The Croods" began life nearly a decade ago as "Crood Awakening," a collaboration of DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Studios, with a script co-written by John Cleese. Then Aardman, creators of the great Wallace & Gromit and the very good "Chicken Run," fell out of the development.

Years later, here we are: Another DreamWorks movie perpetually on the run, desperately full of action because slapstick violence translates more easily to a global marketplace than the artifact known to the old folks as "a joke" or, rarer, "wit."

Cleese retains a story credit, but "The Croods" is strictly in the manic vein of the "Ice Age" movies, box-office forces of nature and exercises in perpetual bickering and wall-to-wall, cliff-to-cliff cliffhangers. The modest satisfaction provided by "The Croods" comes from listening to Nicolas Cage have some fun with the voice of Grug Crood, married to sensible Ugga (Catherine Keener) and father of three. There's little Sandy, a feral, pre-verbal Bam-Bam type; her thick-headed older brother, Thunk (Clark Gregg); and the story's narrator, the eldest, Eep (Emma Stone).

Co-director and co-writer Chris Sanders worked on DreamWorks' high-water mark of late, "How to Train Your Dragon." As with "Dragon," "The Croods" rests on the notion of the patriarch who must learn to adapt and let go. (I resent this storyline, for the record.)

Earthquaked out of their cave dwelling, the Crood brood embarks on a search for a new home. There's an interloper: Eep encounters an advanced caveboy with impressive low body fat (Ryan Reynolds, voice). The caveboy, Guy, is not just a pinup; he's a harbinger of humankind's future. He knows about fire, for example ("the sun is … in his hands!") and has things called "ideas." These nomads must learn to learn from each other as they dodge attacks waged by such fanciful species as Piranhakeets, deadly, toothy flying creatures who can strip a carcass faster than you can say "potential new animation franchise."

Grug and Guy and Eep and Ugga and Thunk and Sandy and Ugga's flinty mother (Cloris Leachman, stuck with a one-note mother-in-law joke for material) search for a place Guy calls "Tomorrow," somewhere just over there, by the mountains, where survival lies and a generation gap can be breached.

To justify the 3-D, directors Sanders and Kirk DeMicco shape "The Croods" as an extended peril seminar. As usual with this photo-realistic animation style, the digital crispness comes at a cost: Each smack in the head or fall from a great height, landing in a "OOOOmmmmmkkph," doesn't really play like a sight gag. It's closer to action-movie violence, slightly toned down. The landscapes, desert to tropical, certainly are varied, which is more than you can say about the characters. At least there's Cage, who has become an astute voice actor, finding some odd, clever, energetic line readings consistently fresher than "The Croods" itself.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'The Croods' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating:
PG (for some scary action)
Running time: 1:31
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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