Listen to the filmmakers behind The Croods and you could be forgiven for thinking they'd made a heavyweight drama, not a computer graphics (CG) cartoon.
"Within a few weeks of beginning the writing, we realised this is a very serious movie," co-director-writer Chris Sanders says. "These guys [in our film] don't have jobs, cars, or iPads; they don't have anything to distract themselves. The big question every day is: 'Why are we here?' And I can't imagine a bigger question than your own existence."
While this might be true, The Croods is not an Ingmar Bergman film. Rather, it's the latest 3-D DreamWorks animation feature, about a family of cave-dwellers living in a harsh, prehistoric world.
Led by Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage), an overprotective patriarch whose maxim is "never not be afraid", this frightened clan scrapes to survive in a hostile environment dominated by bizarre creatures such as the Macawnivore, a multi-coloured sabre-toothed tiger.
Not that hibernating is the theme of the movie. "It's about living and not just surviving," says 24-year-old Emma Stone, who voices Eep, Grug's rebellious red-headed teenage daughter, who is desperate to explore her environment more than her father will let her. "I think we can all be more conscious of [that] on a daily basis, and be more present, not just survive the day."
Evolution is key to The Croods, which sees this family of six forced out into the world when their cave is destroyed. "This is about a dad who is struggling to survive in a world that is changing under his feet," says Sanders' co-writer-director, Kirk De Micco. "And the biggest, most universal change is happening right under his nose - his daughter is growing up and that's the thing he's going to struggle with the most."
If The Croods is a family saga, Sanders and De Micco underline that it's very different to The Flintstones, the wildly popular prehistoric cartoon from the 1960s.
"During development, we had to stay away from it being perceived as an update of that," says De Micco - although between the lush Avatar-style visuals and Grug's impending mid-life crisis, this is easily achieved. In particular, the post-dinosaur prehistoric setting - "a time between times", De Micco says - is unlike anything seen on screen before.
The film began life in 2005 under the title Crood Awakening, with De Micco co-scripting an initial idea with ex-Monty Python star John Cleese. "That was amazing," says De Micco, a journalist-turned-agent-turned-filmmaker whose previous screen credits include the zebra comedy Racing Stripes. "John has a very strong fear of technology; I think he believes it's ruining the world, so I think he identifies [with Grug]. And also having a daughter, he understood that stuff."
It was originally intended as a possible story for DreamWorks to develop with British-based Wallace & Gromit creators Aardman Animations, but when that deal fell through, the plan to turn it into a stop-motion feature was abandoned. Sanders joined the film in 2007, but it was then put on hold for him to work on DreamWorks' Oscar-nominated cartoon How to Train Your Dragon (2010).
The delays gave the filmmakers more time to develop the script and put together an impressive voice cast. Besides Cage and Stone, Catherine Keener plays Grug's long-suffering wife, Ugga, Clark Duke is Eep's not-too-bright brother, Thunk, and veteran actress Cloris Leachman is Grug's ferocious mother-in-law. Grug and Ugga's youngest child, Sandy, is voiced by Randy Thom, while Ryan Reynolds plays Guy, a nomadic loner Eep takes a shine to.
The majority of the vocal recordings were done early, often with Sanders and De Micco video-taping the sessions to send to the animators, who used the footage of the actors as inspiration for the animation of their characters' facial expressions. "It's really comforting because I'm pretty expressive," says Stone. "It's nice to see that the character benefited from the insanity that happens on my face."
Cage even noticed a sly reference to his Academy Award-winning performance in 1995's Leaving Las Vegas: "There's one moment in the movie where I thought, 'Haven't I seen that somewhere before?', and Grug is levitating his hand on top of the sabre-toothed tiger and he's not sure whether to pet it or not. And finally he does. And I went, 'Wasn't that in Leaving Las Vegas? Didn't I have my hand floating on top of Elisabeth Shue's back? Do I fall in love or don't I?'; and I was, like, 'Wow, that's attention to detail'."
Now on the fifth animated project of his career - with past efforts including Astro Boy and G-Force - 49-year-old Cage claims that "all the elements came together in a way that I'm very proud of" on The Croods. Yet he's not afraid to admit that recording the dialogue - often done alone, without other cast members - was difficult. "It is a claustrophobic experience because you're [recording] in a little box. It looks like an aquarium. And you have a microphone and everyone's watching you and telling you to make this character."
Stone, whose only previous voiceover work was in the live-action canine tale Marmaduke, concurs. "It's really interesting to go through something where you're running from rock to rock, and you're jumping and swinging and climbing and snarling - and none of it is actually going on. And it feels like you're in a refrigerator box." Nonetheless, she found it an eye-opening experience. "I had no idea it'd be so physical and such a blast."
Fortunately, the stars had help from the animation department, with each character's physicality inspired by the movements of a particular animal.
Eep's feline grace came from a cat. Grug's lumbering gestures derived from that of a silverback gorilla - as well as the hulking, hairy French rugby player Sébastien Chabal. Sandy was inspired by a terrier puppy. And the grandmother? "She was modelled after an alligator," Sanders says.
Replete with frenzied, feverish action scenes - notably where the family chase an egg-stealing creature as if playing an American football match - The Croods is a fast and furious tale. The underlying seriousness, the "deep, emotional ballast" as Sanders calls it, is all but hidden. Perhaps because they kept urging the crew to have fun. "We knew this [serious side] was going to work best if the other parts of the film were light, so we were always urging the animators to relax."
How the film will fare at the box office remains to be seen, but if past form is anything to go by, it's looking good. The Ice Age animated films collectively grossed more than US$3.5 billion. The way Stone sees it, The Croods has something for everyone. "Obviously kids can relate to Eep or Thunk … or Sandy if they're insane. And I think parents can relate to feeling the need to protect their young and not wanting them to stray too far from the nest."
As long as they stray to the cinemas, DreamWorks will be happy.
The Croods opens on Thursday