Chris Sanders seems to me to be one of the shining stars in the animation world right now, and while I don't think his new film 'The Croods' is as great as either "How To Train Your Dragon" or "Lilo & Stitch," it's still a solid execution of a fairly simple idea. There are some visually breathtaking moments, and the family material in the film is executed with real heart, directly and honestly. For families who have been waiting for a movie to see together for most of the spring, "The Croods" is going to be a welcome sight, indeed.

Eep (voiced by Emma Stone) is a typical teenage girl, bristling at the restrictive rules her parents live by, eager to see the wider world around her, and able to hunt and kill prey with her bare hands. She is, after all, a caveman. Or cavegirl. Or whatever you'd call her. She lives with her father Grug (Nicolas Cage), her mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), her brother Thunk (Clark Duke), her grandmother (Cloris Leachman), and her baby sister Sandy, and they spend most of their time blocked safely in their cave, afraid of the outside world. They venture out to eat, and that's about it. Grug believes the entire world is a threat, and there's value in fear. To his credit, pretty much everyone they've ever known has been eaten or stepped on or otherwise killed, and they are the last of their kind that they know of, so there's some justification for the way Grug feels.

All Eep wants to do is explore the world, though, and see what else there is. One night, she sees a mysterious light outside her cave and when she follows it, she ends up meeting Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), who seems to occupy a space a few rungs up the evolutionary ladder. He's got fire, which Eep's never seen before, and he seems largely unafraid. He tells her that the world is ending, and that he's determined to follow the sun to a place beyond all the earthquakes and fire, and he asks her to join him.

What follows is a fairly standard family film story about parents learning to let go of their children, and judging it just by the plot of the film, "The Croods" is routine stuff. What elevates it is writing that avoids the smarmy pop culture joke nonsense that often gets passed off as family films, and a visual palette that is often quite beautiful. In terms of the reality that the film establishes, think something that falls somewhere on the continuum between "The Flintstones" and "Quest For Fire." The creatures that inhabit the world are fantastic and bizarre, and once the Croods find themselves on the move because their cave has been destroyed, the world itself becomes very surreal and gorgeously realized.

Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders co-wrote and co-directed the film, working from an original idea by John Cleese, and they get particularly strong vocal work out of the cast. This might be one of the most engaged performances I've heard from Nic Cage in a while, and when the film reaches for emotional impact, it often lands its punches. Stone is very funny in the movie, and she plays well off of Ryan Reynolds, who embodies an optimism and a fearlessness that Grug has trouble understanding. Keener may not have a lot to do in the film, but she plays every beat honestly, and it matters. As with "Lilo & Stitch," Sanders voices one of the main critters in the movie, a weird little sloth thingy named Belt, and the character is used as a sort of comedy punctuation mark in several scenes.



I had been warned that there were some sequences that might be too intense for younger kids, but my five-year-old seemed fine with all of it. Sanders and De Micco stage some exciting sequences, like a breakfast hunt that is scored, oddly, to a new arrangement of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk," but they keep things light enough that I think you'll be fine with all but the most sensitive of children. If anything, it is the emotional content and a few choices made by Grug late in the film that might be worth a conversation with kids afterwards.

I think DreamWorks in general seems to have finally moved away from the jokey template that they used to follow in every film, and I like that their films seem more sincere now than ever before. "The Croods" isn't my favorite film they'e ever released, but it is definitely a charming option for parents who want to hit the theater this weekend.

"The Croods" opens in theaters everywhere this Friday.