Just another family trying to survive

Co-writers and -directors of new DreamWorks Animation 3D film, "The Croods," Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco, are sitting in their cluttered offices at the company's Glendale campus littered with unopened boxes, posters of their movie, a pile of too-cute-to-resist furry brown plush toys of one of the film’s most kid-friendly characters, a sloth called Belt. "We look like hoarders, we haven’t really had much time to tidy up," laughs De Micco.

Not surprising, as the two filmmakers have been traveling the country for the past two months promoting their new animated feature about a prehistoric family coming to terms with a changing and dangerous world. This is no Flintstones family with stone-age mod cons, but a brutish first family surviving in a hostile environment of large predators and tectonic shifts headed by family patriarch Grug (voiced by Nicholas Cage) who lives by the motto, “Fear is good; change is bad.”

But his tough-minded teenage daughter, Eep (voiced by Emma Stone), a rebellious teen for any age, has adventure on her mind and wants to escape their dark cave existence, unwittingly propelling her family onto a road trip of danger and discovery.

The film was made entirely at the Glendale campus, and being DreamWorks first feature about a human family, its themes resonated with all involved. “During production the project triggered so many great memories about family from all our cast and drew,” says Sanders, who lives in the Glendale area and has a 7-year-old daughter.

Kirk De Micco, who recently became a first-time dad with twins (a boy and a girl), agrees. “I think everyone sees something of themselves or their family in this movie because there is nothing to distract you. It’s really just a family. They don’t have a schedule or a job or any place to be, they are just being a family," he says. “I think it was inevitable as we were writing this movie — a lot of our past family experiences, particularly our vacation experiences, probably influenced us.”

“Chris is probably the most emergency-prepared dad I’ve ever met,” laughs De Micco. “He has everything at his house, water, generators, camping stoves.”

They both related to the fear and protection instincts Grug has for his brood. In fact, one of the character’s catch-phrases — “Never not be afraid” — became known as a Kirk-ism around the office. “It sounds like we are completely paranoid,” De Micco says with a laugh. “I think it comes from always wanting to be prepared. But also as filmmakers, you have to take risks, which is scary, but also exciting.

De Micco, a former journalist and screenwriter whose directing credits include the 2008 animated comedy “Space Chimps,” came to DreamWorks in 2005 to work on an early draft of what would eventually evolve into “The Croods” with legendary Monty Python comedian John Cleese. It was intended to be a stop-motion project between DreamWorks Animation SKG and Aardman Animations — they had previously collaborated on such films as “Chicken Run” and “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”

“The idea was originally a forward-thinking cave man teams up with a backward-thinking bruiser of a caveman,” says De Micco. “It’s a very different story now, but the one thing that carried through was that fear of change.”

For “The Croods,” everything is a new discovery — fire, shoes, even pets ( i.e., “animals you don’t eat”). “We love that they have a beginner’s mind,” says DeMicco. “They are not stupid; just watching them experience things anew is fresh. We are all in our technological caves and look at devices all day, so this is saying to go have a look around and see the world a bit more.”

Sanders, who studied animation at CalArts, is a two-time Academy Award nominee who worked at Disney on such films as “Lilo and Stitch” before moving to DreamWorks in 2006 to direct “How to Train Your Dragon.”

He began collaborating on “The Croods” in 2007. “I immediately clicked with Kirk and loved the project. When you walk through the gates of the DreamWorks campus there is such a love and support of films. It’s a great environment to work,” says Sanders.

While he is relieved he has yet to encounter the teenage troubles Grug endures, his young daughter was excited to see the tar pits depicted in the film. “She loves the La Brea Tar Pits and this is the first time a movie has ever animated tar — which may sound simple, but was a real challenge to get right,” he says.

Sanders also lent his voice to the sing-song expression of doom that Belt, the sloth character, exclaims: “Da Da Daa.” “When we were in Miami at a screening, we walked out and saw a sea of kids with Belt plush toys, all pressing the voice button on the toy,” he says. “That was very exciting. I never expected it to become the favorite catch-cry of the movie.”


KATHERINE TULICH writes about film and entertainment for Marquee.

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