The Croods (PG) 4 stars
Featuring the voices of Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener
DIRECTORS KIRK DEMICCO, CHRIS SANDERS
REVIEW MARK NAGLAZAS
You’ll like this if you liked Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, How to Train Your Dragon, Ice Age
Pixar famously celebrated specialness in The Incredibles, the tale of a family of ultra high achievers forced to disguise their gifts in a world of egalitarianism gone mad.
DreamWorks goes to the other end of the Darwinian scale in The Croods, whose prehistoric family huddle in a cave, sleep piled on top of each other and live by the knuckle-dragging patriarch Grug's grammatically challenged mantra "Never not be afraid".
While Grug and his clan don't soar like the Incredibles (family and movie) it's pretty funny and a little touching watching them clamber out of the darkness and toward enlightenment, overcoming their fear and embracing a world full of danger and new ideas.
Indeed, DreamWorks itself has been climbing the evolutionary ladder in hot pursuit of Pixar, leaving behind the plethora of pop culture references that was the studio's signature during its Shrek era and embracing the richer characters and more meaningful journeys of its great Disney-owned rival.
The Croods is still a few rungs below the best of Pixar. But it is still great entertainment, a visually striking, wonderfully goofy Stone Age road movie in which the forebears of the Flintstones and the Simpsons are forced to flee their collapsing world and strike out for the future.
Co-directors Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon) nail the Croods' major dilemma - how to get from one day to the next - in the inspired, nutty opening, in which the family's fight for a single egg against an army of colourful prehistoric beasts morphs into a madcap game of American football.
When night falls, however, the Croods are hustled back to their cave by Grug, who is so protective of his family that not a moment passes without him issuing another homily about being eternally fearful and forever vigilant. Even bedtime stories are designed to make the youngsters petrified of everything.
"This is the story of Crispy Bear who lived her life in darkness, routine and terror - and she was happy," begins Grug (Nicolas Cage in his most lively and engaging performance in memory).
Grug's tales have no effect on his eldest daughter Eep (Emma Stone), a feisty redhead, who one night sneaks off following a flickering flame and meets a more advanced form of human life, a hipster inventor named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) who uses brains rather than brawn to survive.
Grug wants Eep to have nothing to do with Guy (he's something new, therefore bad) and dismisses this Stone Aged Thomas Edison's warnings of a coming disaster.
But when their world starts to crack and their cave is destroyed (the shifting of the tectonic plates is the backstory) the Croods are forced to follow Guy into what he believes will be a bright new world. The journey is a familiar one in which the overprotective father must open himself up to new experiences and allow his children to flourish. (It's a dry-land Finding Nemo).
But the life lessons never get in the way of the comedy, such as the lovely sequence in which the Croods encounter fire for the first time (they treat it like a wild animal) and try on their first pair of shoes ("I love them." squeals a Sarah Jessica Parker-like Eep when she slips on a pair of ugg boots).
There's a romance, of course, but the heart of the film is the evolution of Grug, a marvellously rich character who struggles, not just with the passing of his old way of life and the emergence of new ideas and technology, but has difficulty with his role as alpha male being taken over by the younger Guy.
And the world they inhabit has the strange beauty of Avatar, albeit one in which a squadron of beautiful red birds can strip a dinosaur of every scrap of meat in seconds and a giant corn cob yields popcorn as big as basketballs. "Don't eat it," implores Grug. "It's new."