By Michael S. Palmer
My favorite movie experiences are the surprises -- films from which you expect so little, everything on screen forces you to question avoiding it in the first place. Despite a filmmaking team that includes 'How to Train Your Dragon' co-director Chris Sanders, DreamWorks Animation's 'The Croods' was completely off my theatrical "must see" radar. Maybe it was the marketing; maybe I simply don't watch enough Saturday morning cartoons, but it just didn't seem worth my time. This gut-assumption continued when TV and radio ads quoted critics complimenting its "beautifully rendered" animation. 'Cause when a movie's no good, you can at least say it's pretty, right?
God, I love being wrong.
Last week, Dolby called, offering a couple free passes to see 'The Croods' in Dolby Atmos (I'm fortunate to live quite close to one of the equipped cinemas). After a brief hesitation, I figured why not. A free movie. A new sound experience. And a chance to tell our readers where this flick ranks next to auditory Atmos spectacles like 'Life of Pi', 'The Hobbit', and 'Taken 2'.
Basically, is it worth your hard-earned coin?
Very much so. 'The Croods' is tremendous fun thanks to terrific voice performances, a well-structured script, and, yup, beautifully rendered animation. Sure, academics could argue the film's thematics and character arcs aren't exactly subtle. Yet, in a four-quadrant family film, I never count that as a bad thing. Also, some of the settings and animals seem a little too 'Avatar' influenced, but overall, 'The Croods' has something for every audience. Brilliant colors, cute animals, and endless sight gags for the kiddos. A buried stream of darker jokes for the adults (like a running gag about the father hoping his mother-in-law dies). Fully stunning landscapes for the animation geeks. And we could spend hours discussing various creatures, which are inventive multi-animal combinations (mutations?).
Then there's Atmos for the sound geeks. Barring some catastrophe, this should make one hell of a 7.1 mix on Blu-ray, but if you live near an Atmos theatre (how do you know? check here), do yourself a favor check this movie out before the "print" moves. While not quite an audio masterpiece like 'Life of Pi', I enjoyed it more than 'The Hobbit' -- 'An Unexpected Journey' was a near-continuous assault, but 'The Croods' holds its show-stoppers for a few key sequences. Most of these involve The Croods running away from The End of the World, depicted as continents violently ripping apart, a thundering menace leveling mountains and splitting plains. These sequences are literally awesome. But my favorite Atmos moments were set in the cave sequence. After the family is separated in various tunnels, they call out to each other and, as this happens, the cinema auditorium turns INTO a cave environment.
My second favorite part about going to see 'The Croods' in Atmos wasn't the movie itself, but rather listening to the family sitting directly behind me. A Grandfather and Grandmother had taken their three Grandkids to see what seemed like everyone's first 3D picture. I have to assume these folks had no idea they were sitting in one of the best cinema auditoriums in the country (in terms of access to this brand new format). The Grandfather was particularly struck when the Atmos trailer/logo played before the feature film; in this one, the camera moves through an animated forest as a Maple Tree "helicopter seed" detaches, whips around the room, and splashes into a glassy pond. I heard further murmurs as various sound effects panned on and off the screen, around the cinema, and over our heads. The movie, thanks in no small part to the sound, impressed everyone that I could see. There were a lot of smiling, surprised faces in the lobby as we exited the theatre.
Obviously, that's just one family and sound mixes shouldn't really pull you OUT of the movie you're watching, but I go to movies with a slightly different analytical point of view compared to general audiences. I don't necessarily need an aggressive mix, but I try to compare and contrast various surround sound experiences to see how they're tricking my brain and affecting my emotional connection to the movie (to my suspension of disbelief).
Most Atmos mixes are terrific, authored by the best craftsman and artists Hollywood has to offer; for audio geeks, 'The Croods' offers a range of subtle and dynamic sound sequences that perfectly complement my favorite 2013 movie-surprise (thus far). Check out this movie on a big screen with the best sound possible before it's too late.