The First Family, A Family of Firsts
With any journey comes discovery -- and The Croods's trek provides many "firsts," including: the aforementioned family, road trip, fire and shoes, as well as the first pet, the first cell phone (OK, it's a shell, but still) ... plus: the first joke, the first pair of sunglasses, and even the first mid-life crisis.
Most of all, THE CROODS is about family. "The physical comedy was always there in the film's development," says writer-director Chris Sanders. "But we came to realize that once you strip away all the stuff in our modern lives -- jobs, cars, responsibilities -- you drill down to what really matters, and that's family and friends."
The themes of family ties, as well as shared conflicts and discovery, resonated with everyone connected with THE CROODS -- from the filmmakers and the cast, to the studio executives. "This film is DreamWorks Animation's first feature about a human family," Sanders points out. "And during production, the project triggered so many great memories about family from members of our cast and crew -- like, 'there was this time my brother did this to me,' or 'my dad was a lot like Grug' -- things like that."
Adds writer-director Kirk DeMicco: "Everyone can find an access point into the movie and relate to one or more of the characters and say, 'Oh, I know those people, even though they're not really like my .'... But we all know they really are," he admits with a smile.
Producer Kristine Belson expands upon the idea that the Croods, despite having lived a long, long, long time ago, are not dissimilar to families today. "Family is a universal thing. As much as technology and other things change, what was true about families, hundreds of years ago -- thousands of years ago -- a million years ago -- is true today and will be in the future. There are many of the same struggles, triumphs and dynamics."
Another key theme in THE CROODS is change and the inherent humor of trying to do things for the first time. "That's another thing we can all relate to," says producer Jane Hartwell. "Really, at any age, during any era, change is very, very difficult, but it's something we must embrace to grow and move on. Grug personifies that fear. He's terrified that his family is going to change in ways he can't control and which could affect his ability to keep them safe."
Change, like everything else, doesn't come easily to Grug, whose stubbornness is matched only by his love for his clan and by his heroic work ethic. For Grug, there are no weekends, holidays or sick days (the latter haven't yet been invented); he's on watch, 24/7, 365 days a year.
He lives by many credos, including the aforementioned "fear is good; change is bad," as well as other Grug-isms, such as: "Anything fun is bad" and "Never not be afraid," which began as a Kirk-ism (as in DeMicco). "And, yes, I still am afraid," the filmmaker jokes.
In order to keep his family truly safe, Grug must learn the difference between surviving and living. "Grug wants to keep his family safe, and that's not unexpected," adds Sanders. "But like all dads, he must learn to deal with the massive challenge of figuring out how to maintain control of his increasingly adventurous clan."
"Grug's heart is always in the right place," says DeMicco. "He's a great father who's trying his best, but he's just in over his head when the Croods embark on their journey. If things weren't bad enough, Grug goes through the first-ever mid-life crisis when he realizes that his daughter's crush Guy, has a lot more going for him than Grug ever did."
Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage says he empathizes with his on-screen alter ego, because "it's impossible to be a father and avoid thinking about your child's first crush, or about keeping up with your kids' new ways of thinking."
"We, as parents, go too far sometimes, but that's where Grug is at," Cage continues. "He does experience a transformation, which we all must do at some point in our lives."
One of the catalysts for this change is Guy, who sparks in Grug feelings of wariness (over the young man's burgeoning romance with Eep) and jealousy (of Guy's intellect).
Says Cage: "Grug wonders, 'how can I compete with Guy's brains and new ideas?' Grug is big and lumbering; Guy is athletic, smart and charming -- and he's got his eye on Eep, which understandably makes Grug uncomfortable. But by journey's end, Grug will accept a new way of living. He comes to admire and even emulate Guy."
Before the Croods have their fateful encounter with Guy, Grug must deal with Eep, who is trying to drag her family, kicking and screaming, out of the cave and into the light. Her nagging feeling that there is adventure and discovery to experience outside the family cave is confirmed when the Croods embark on their adventure.
Eep may be a teen character we've never before seen in an animated feature, yet she is relatable in every way, including physically. With her strong, densely muscled frame, Eep is an empowering and aspirational figure, whose defining characteristics are strength, curiosity and tenacity.
"Eep has many of the qualities of today's teenaged girls, like being incredibly annoyed with her family," notes Emma Stone. "She wants to spread her wings and explore the world outside her home, so it's difficult to abide by Grug's rules and actions, like the way he rolls a giant rock against the opening of the cave every night, blocking the family from everything outside, physically and emotionally. When we meet Eep, she's never seen the light of a star before!"
That all begins to change after a cataclysm hurtles the Croods on an unforgettable road trip. During that epic journey, Eep makes many discoveries, chief among them the first teen romance. At last, she has the chance to find the right "Guy," so to speak.
"She likes that Guy is a free spirit, because she has that feeling within her as well," says Stone. He admires her spirit too, although at first she's a bit overwhelming -- for example when the supremely able-bodied young woman slings Guy over her shoulder. "Yes, she literally picks him up!" Stone exclaims. "So it's understandable that Guy is terrified of Eep, at least initially, because she's so aggressive and tough."
Theirs is a combustible relationship and sparks fly, literally, as Guy teaches Eep and her clan the wonders of fire and "ideas." And her sense of awe doesn't end with that momentous discovery, because shortly thereafter she experiences the infinite delights of shoes, a fateful moment that perhaps launched our everlasting fascination with footwear. "Eep thinks her feet have disappeared in the shoes, which is awesome to her," Stone says with a laugh.
Guy's inventive ideas ultimately expose all of the Croods to new possibilities and to a new world -- a place, he says, that "has more suns in the sky than you can count, and where things are better."
But even with his superior know-how, Guy is not without his own challenges. "He's been living on his own for a long time," says Ryan Reynolds, who makes his animated feature film debut with THE CROODS. "Unlike the Croods, he doesn't have a family, so Guy's life is full of variables, whereas their lives have been pretty static. And Guy has been exposed to new things every day because he's constantly on the move. He's been forced to evolve."
"Guy is also forced to rely on his imagination, so he lives inside his head a lot," Reynolds continues. "And that's a great thing to play because he can be as over the top as you want him to be. Guy has no limits because he's constantly thinking." Even with his superior mind, Guy needs the Croods' companionship, and to feel like he's part of a family.
Prior to Guy's fateful encounter with Eep, the closest thing he has to family is his only companion and friend, a sloth named Belt. As his name suggests, Belt holds Guy's pants up. "So he's functional and fashionable," says Reynolds. Belt is the first pet, which means "he's an animal you don't eat," Guy tells the Croods, whose sole experience with creatures up to that point has been to consume them, or flee from them.
Belt can't talk but his signature sing-song expression of doom -- "Da-da-daaaaaaaa!" -- speaks volumes, and is given voice by none other than Chris Sanders.
Sloths also played key roles behind-the-scenes, notes Kirk DeMicco. "Through the years we were in production, we'd do special presentations that would update DreamWorks staff at a company-wide event. We like to spice each presentation up with something special and for the final one Chris and I made a short film featuring a real sloth. Even though it sounded like a crazy idea, we asked our faithful assistant Daniel Chun to track down a sloth. Without batting an eye, he said he'd get right on it. Lo and behold, a day later, Daniel had not only tracked down a sloth with a thorough acting resume, but also wanted to know if there was anything special we needed the sloth to do. It's days like that when you realize you work in Hollywood."
Fun is fun, but the video featuring the sloth also provided invaluable research for the character of Belt.
As the Croods experience the eventful changes that accompany Guy's new ideas, Grug's wife, Ugga, scrambles to hold the group together. "In a family that sometimes acts a little nutty, she probably has her head screwed on a little tighter than the rest," says Catherine Keener. "Ugga is loving, caring and a great mom, but at the same time she's every bit as physically solid and tough as Grug."
Still, during their many years together raising their family, Ugga has always deferred to her husband's authority. But a change in their housing situation triggers big changes in their relationship. "By the end of the story she's the one who tells Grug he must change his thinking," says Sanders.
"Their marriage and family life is not unlike those of today," adds Keener. "We understand the Croods. The family discovers the universal truth that it's difficult to change and to let go of things. But when they approach the new world, it's stunning. And they literally have to jump off a cliff to get there. Life for everyone is very much like that. You need to take risks."
Ugga's feisty mother Gran poses risks of her own, especially to her son-in-law, whom she delights in tormenting. The fact that Gran is ancient, some say, at age 45 (remember, this was a while ago), hasn't diminished her irascibility or her instincts for survival. The single-toothed dynamo remains an active member of the human race -- all five or six members of it.
"Gran is not some isolated old lady," says Cloris Leachman. "She's as rarin' to go as much as any other member of the family."
"Gran is so old she lived through the ice age, mostly by devouring her ex-husbands one-by-one," jokes DeMicco about the character's background. "She has nothing nice to say about anyone -- especially Grug -- but at the end of the film, Gran will surprise everyone because she has wisdom beyond even her advanced years."
A kinder, gentler member of the family is Croods scion Thunk, who is 6-feet, 3-inches tall, 280 pounds... and nine years old. "He's a big tree trunk of a kid," says Clark Duke. "Thunk wants to be a great hunter like his dad, but Thunk can't hit the broad side of a mammoth."
"Thunk is always trying to impress Grug; he wants to be a carbon copy of his dad," says DeMicco. "He has explosive energy and enthusiasm, but he's probably the most vulnerable figure in the family."
Even more explosive is youngest sibling Sandy, who's like a baby wildcat. In a dangerous world full of creatures trying to take a bite out of her, Sandy is not afraid to bite back. "She's a wild beast of a child but a dutiful daughter," says Sanders. "Grug probably wishes Eep were more like Sandy."
The film's artists, designers and animators played critical roles in bringing these characters to life, but DeMicco, Sanders, and producers Kristine Belson and Jane Hartwell credit the actors with not only providing wonderful performances, but helping shape the characters, as well.
"Each of our actors brought a huge contribution to the party," says DeMicco. "Following each voice recording session, we'd say, 'This is amazing and we've got to put it in the film,' be it a performance bit or a new line of dialogue."
For example, "There were moments when Nicolas Cage surprised me with how 'out there' he would go," Belson recalls. "And then we'd return to Editorial to review and I'd realize that, yes, this is not only going to work, it's so much better than what we started with."
"Ryan Reynolds has a quicksilver mind that produced some great ad-libs, and he gave Guy a mix of aloofness and frenetic charm," adds Sanders. DeMicco notes that Emma Stone's expressiveness and broadness were equally unexpected -- and more than welcome. "We would take those physical 'Emma' moments from the recording sessions and put them into the film."
Cage confirms the recording sessions often went in unexpected directions, to the benefit of the actors and the story. "Kirk and Chris were willing to let us experiment and to really go for it. They allowed us to reach for something in the abstract, and they knew what would work when they heard it. They're not what I call 'precious' with the dialogue, which works very well for me because then I can riff with them."
The actors' performances complement the filmmakers' vision of the Croods being more than physically capable of handling the challenges presented by a journey that harbors surprises at every turn. "We wanted the Croods to be faster and stronger than any characters we've seen before in films set in prehistoric times," says DeMicco. "We wanted to make the characters feel like they were part of this physically challenging world we invented. We didn't want it to feel like they were just dropped into a movie set. So the Croods still have the 'beginner's minds' of cavemen, but their physical prowess is quite advanced."
One of the film's early sequences, involving a hunt for what the Croods hope will be a much-needed meal, highlights their agility, strength and speed. "It is a purely physical sequence to really set the dials for the audience as to how tough the Croods are, and to establish the rules of the world we're exploring," says Sanders. "The scene has a kind of Looney Tunes quality to it."
Enhancing the scene's runaway action and controlled chaos is the music by Academy Award-nominated film composer Alan Silvestri, performed by the celebrated University of Southern California Marching Band, which has entertained generations of football fans at USC games. Its distinctive sound propels the set piece's hard-charging style. "We talked to Alan about the vibe we were looking for," says DeMicco -- "like, it's 'time; or, 'we're gonna get out there and hunt!' The music and action shows that the hunt is kind of like a game to the Croods, but the 'opposing team,' which is the family's prey and hoped-for main course, is just as tough as the Croods."
Working with Silvestri on the end credit song, "Shine Your Way" [performed by Adam Young and Yuna] was an eye-opening experience for the directors: "In writing [the screenplay for] THE CROODS for eight years, there were many highlights and a few low lights, but there's one particular bit of writing that I will never forget," DeMicco remembers. "We had been talking for quite some time about an end credit song, but for many reasons that never seemed to get traction. I suggested to Chris that we should try to write it with Alan Silvestri's help. Chris and I traveled to Alan's home in Carmel and began working on the song with him and his collaborator Glen Ballard. It was such an exciting process to be part of. The confines of writing within a song are so different than in screenplays; we would be mentally drained from the sessions with Alan and Glen. And to hear such talented singers like Adam and Yuna sing our song has been one to the greatest rewards of working on the movie."
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