Our notion of the modern Stone Age family gets a tweak in “The Croods,’’ the latest bit of 3-D rock candy from DreamWorks Animation. Instead of a caveman world that’s infrastructurally a lot like ours, only with foot-powered sedans, it’s a world that’s emotionally a lot like ours, with experience-starved teens and overprotective parents butting heads. But then, with prehistoric beasties and tectonic catastrophe waiting at every turn, we can see where the ’rents are coming from.
Emma Stone voices Eep, a cutely brutish cavegirl (think Fiona from “Shrek,’’ only with worse posture and better skin) who yearns to see what’s over the horizon. Or out there in the dark. Or at least beyond the monotonous confines of her family’s craggy canyon home. But the movie does an entertaining job of impressing on us what a struggle survival is at the dawn of man. It’s an all-hands-on-deck family action episode just to snag a few precious drops of proto-emu egg yolk. There’s lots of cleverly rendered anthropological skittishness in response to the unknown — which is virtually everything. And for Eep’s dad, Grug (Nicolas Cage, cartoonish in every sense), “new’’ is inherently synonymous with “deadly.’’ So Eep isn’t going anywhere.
Until she does go somewhere, of course. She’s lured from her cave by Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a semi-evolved wanderer with chiseled features instead of a sloped forehead, an ability to kindle fire, and an understanding that cataclysmic geological change is coming. Soon he’s got the entire family joining him on a visually colorful quest to get to higher, safer ground, with Grug disapprovingly furrowing his monobrow throughout. (The rest of the likable Crood brood includes Catherine Keener as the mom, Clark Duke as Eep’s brother, and Cloris Leachman as their resilient granny — source of some nettlesome-mother-in-law humor that feels like a further ode to “The Flintstones.’’)
Some of the exotic landscape the group trailblazes looks imported from “Avatar’’ — happily, bringing that immersively dimensionalized, eye-catching quality along with it. If the flora is familiar, though, the fauna is unique, as animators Chris Sanders (“How to Train Your Dragon’’) and Kirk DeMicco (“Space Chimps’’) clearly put in extra hours brainstorming their dizzying stampede of hybrid critters. Among the species that “Ice Age’’ overlooked: owl-headed wildcats, gator badgers, flamingo-spliced piranha, giraffe-spotted elephants, and land whales.
The filmmakers also work overtime to knead a satisfying resolution from their themes about the importance of growth and living life unafraid. But they cop out on a scene in which Cage’s character takes his instinctual protectiveness to a surprising extreme. Just as the whole group is about to be swallowed up by the Big One, Glug selflessly — well, we won’t spoil it. We’ll just say that had the movie figured out a way to stay the less-cliched course, it might have helped the DreamWorks oeuvre take steps toward Pixar’s emotional resonance. Now that would have been evolving.