The Croods

By Jared Young

Mailed on January 30, 2014

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Dear John Cleese

Dear John,

It's a testament to how far the digital arts have come in the last two decades that a film as mediocre as _The Croods _could look so beautiful. But mediocrity is only measurable against greatness. And you know a little something about greatness, don't you, John? Your career has been defined, in large part, by the sort of unsurpassed historical successes that most performers can only dream of: founding member of the century's greatest comedy sextet, and writer/creator of the century's greatest sitcom.

And now you've given us The Croods.

But, wait: I'm not using the term mediocre as a pejorative. Sure, mediocre is a synonym for undistinguished or unexceptional, but it's easy to forget that distinction and exception are rare feats, and not always what art aspires to. Indeed, mediocrity has its advantages.

While mediocrity might be a foreign concept to someone like you, it's not new to contemporary animated family films. DreamWorks Animation, in particular. One of the reasons they've never been able to replicate Pixar's critical and financial success is that they don't seem to subscribe to auteur theory. Instead, they develop their projects the same way a toy company develops new products. In the case of The Croods, you were just one of five screenwriters (and who knows how many more punch-up artists) meddling with this script. By contrast, it only took two people - you and your first wife, Connie Booth - to write every single episode of Fawlty Towers. In this sense, DreamWorks Animation is a sort of mediocrity factory; of the twenty-seven films they've released since 1998, only one, How To Train Your Dragon, has found the sort of unanimous acclaim Pixar regularly enjoyed in its pre-sequel heyday.

So, how did you end up mixed up with them?

My understanding is that it began with an adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Twits. And from there evolved into an idea for a caveman buddy-flick. Only Hollywood's special brand of tinkering could have mutated that into what we get onscreen in The Croods: a generic generational drama about a parent who wants one thing and a child who wants another, complete with a foul-mouthed granny, a sarcastic pet lemur, and a strong-willed, stereotype-breaking female lead character who nonetheless goes weak-kneed over a handsome fella and squeals with delight over a pair of shoes.

But I was talking about the advantages of mediocrity, wasn't I?

Mediocrity is the inoffensive middle-ground, a soothing white noise. It's peaceful. It requires no effort. And it has the power to surprise; it's the short grass in which tiny triumphs can hide.

At the beginning of the otherwise middling flick is an exciting chase sequence; a family hunt that occurs with the breakneck physics of a roadrunner cartoon. There are some really breathtaking images, too: a starry sky that reminds you of the majesty of starry skies; a lush jungle that borrows liberally from the botanical imagination of Dr. Suess; an ocean of volcanic ash that ebbs and flows and makes terrific use of the widescreen aspect ratio. And, at the end, a reconciliation between father and daughter that, despite all the cloying humor and sermonizing and false tension that led up to it, might, in the moment, shake loose some dust from the rafters of the theater, which will drift down into your eyes and prompt them (against your will) to protect themselves with a discharge of saline that might (again, against your will) leak out onto your face, which will require you to very subtly (because you don't want to disturb your companions' enjoyment of the film) lift your hand to your eye and stealthily rub away the wetness with the knuckle of your thumb, and, later, write a strongly-worded letter to the proprietors of the theater about the thoroughness of their janitorial upkeep.

So you don't necessarily have to feel ashamed to be associated with The Croods. You've given us enough greatness for two lifetimes, and there's a place in the world for this sort of mediocre stuff. Just don't get too comfortable down here.



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