A scene from "The Croods." (DreamWorks Animation )
It's not a good omen for "The Croods," about a likable family of Paleolithic cave dwellers, when a joke about "the first joke" falls flat.
I don't fault the actors. The character voices provided by Nicolas Cage as the Croods' cautious dad, Grug; Emma Stone as Eep, his rebellious teenager, desperate to get out of the cave; Ryan Reynolds as Guy, the outsider who sees the future; Catherine Keener as ever-patient mom Ugga; and Cloris Leachman as cranky Gran are spot on.
But "The Croods" was primed for problems before its 3-D characters found themselves right in the middle of the first continental divide.
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The movie does deliver some Crood amusement thanks to its cast — no pun intended, this is about as innuendo-free an animated movie as we've seen in a while.
The animation, Stone Age-enticing, isn't the problem either.
In fact, animation turns the cataclysmic times that created the continents and frame "The Croods" into an imaginatively striking 3-D experience — lava flows, earthquakes, crumbling mountain ranges, fleeing beasties. The cataclysm also works to expose all the fractures and fissures among the Croods clan too. It's a family crisis! It's a global crisis! It's a road trip! Huh?
No one really expects animated comedies about prehistoric times to get into the science in any serious way. So the reality that the continental drifting began more than a billion years ago and we only stopped dragging our knuckles and started using our brains in relatively recent times isn't the issue.
The comedy fault line is.
If Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco — the writing-directing team — wanted us to hang in there for the entire road trip, "funnier," "more emotional" and "more substance" would have gone a long way to curb the "Are we there yet?" crowd. That would be the adults and a fair share of the kids in the audience.
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How Sanders, who was the creative force behind the enchanting "How to Train Your Dragon," or De Micco, who has collaborated on a couple of scripts with John Cleese, came up so short on the story is mystifying. Don't look for any Monty Python-esque influences from Cleese, who is credited with having a hand in developing the story, either; they are harder to find than a dinosaur egg. The movie is more like play-it-safe Grug than clever interloper Guy — far too straight-laced when it desperately needs to loosen up.
When we meet the Croods, their life is one of anxiety and hardship. Days are spent searching for food. Going after one particular egg becomes a family, flag-football like affair fueled by fear. Nights are spent huddled in the cave while Grug paints stories on the walls — the simplicity of that act is among the nicest animation in the film. The tales, however, are terrifying, all the calamities that could befall the kids if they break the rules. Kind of like campfire stories, except the Croods are waiting to witness that first spark.
Instead of fireworks, the Croods have Eep, who scales sheer rock walls with moxie to get a glimpse of the world beyond the cave and her family. Her brother, Thunk (Clark Duke) is still a growing boy, Gran is an old pain and Sandy, the toddler, is a little like having a rabid squirrel in the family. Quite simply, she's lethal.
In a pattern that probably even preceded the Croods, everything about the family equilibrium changes when Guy shows up. He's got lots of new ideas and the kind of fetching forehead a caveman could only envy. Sparks fly from the first moment Eep and Guy spot each other, and not just because of the torch he's carrying. Literally, like Jeff Probst on "Survivor," he's got fire.
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The rest of the movie will be the old familiar tug of war between the dad who's afraid for his daughter to grow up and the guy who wants to steal her away. That the world is coming apart at the seams is what finally gets the family on the road, where they are beset by all manner of difficulties — including some of the blandest conversations to ever take place in treacherous times.
The never-ending series of tight spots they find themselves in on their way to "tomorrow," as Guy has named the future, require Guy and Grug to come up with new-fangled ways to get out of them by using their "brains," another Guy-ism. Even though Eep is feisty, it's still a man's world.
Good stuff comes when bad stuff happens; that's when some of the movie animation prowess kicks into high gear. But too many of the "solutions" the guys concoct are so impossibly complex or just downright ridiculous — puppetry comes to mind — that like the continents, it's a little too easy to drift away.
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