Cavemen — they’re just like us! — or so ‘‘The Croods’’ seems to be saying with its familiar mix of generational clashes, coming-of-age milestones and generally relatable laughs.
The animated adventure features a strong, star-studded cast and dazzles visually in wondrously colorful, vibrant 3-D, but the script doesn’t pop off the screen quite so effectively. The overly facile message here is: Trying new things is good. It’s a useful notion for kids in the crowd to chew on, but their older companions may be longing for something more substantive. Still, ‘‘The Croods’’ is both brisk and beautiful, and should be sufficiently entertaining for family audiences for whom few such options exist these days.
‘‘The Croods’’ might be especially resonant with young female viewers, with a strong, resourceful teenage girl at its center named Eep (Emma Stone). It’s the prehistoric era, and while the rest of Eep’s family prefers the comforting safety of hiding fearfully inside a cave, with only sporadic outings for group hunts, she longs to see what’s outside those stone walls.
Her dad, Grug (Nicolas Cage), is especially protective, neurotically worrying about every possible unknown and urging the same sort of apprehension in everyone else, including his supportive wife, Ugga (Catherine Keener), and doltish 9-year-old son, Thunk (Clark Duke). There’s also a sharp-toothed Tasmanian devil of a baby named Sandy and Grug’s mother-in-law, voiced in reliably sassy fashion by Cloris Leachman. The gags that depict her as a disapproving nag are more than a bit stale; if there’s any heart-tugging or even vaguely engaging bond here, it’s the father-daughter one between Grug and Eep.
One day, Eep dares to escape while everyone else is sleeping and meets up with the hottest (and only) guy she’s ever seen. Conveniently, he’s named Guy, and he’s voiced by Ryan Reynolds. He has a furry, impossibly cute companion named Belt who holds up his pants (kids will dig this tiny scene-stealer). But he also astonishes her with something she’s never seen before called fire. Guy warns that the world is ending, and that she should come with him if she wants to live. When her family’s cave is destroyed, they reluctantly realize they must all go with Guy. This sets up: a) some basic, tried-and-true road trip jokes and b) a blossoming romance between Guy and Eep, which dad naturally tries to stifle.
The themes aren’t exactly groundbreaking from co-writers and directors Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco (with John Cleese sharing a story-by credit, having been a part of early drafts of the script), and the plot feels too repetitive with the Croods encountering one unexplored terrain after another and responding in predictable ways.
But the oohs, ahhs and scattered laughs come from the various creatures the Croods discover along their journey, including the hungry, hot-pink piranha birds, the upside-down pear bears and the fearsome bear owls. Much of the lush landscape and vivid details feel as if they were taken directly from ‘‘Avatar,’’ and a similar sense of wonder propels these stronger segments. The lighting can indeed be magical, so it’s no surprise that we are urged over and over again to step into it.
In 2-D and 3-D. (PG, 92 minutes)
Like an anxious parent waiting to hear whether his kid has gotten into a good college, I worry about "Admission." I worry, in short, that it’s a classic example of the cinematic underachiever: a movie with a good head on its shoulders and a sweet heart, but with an inconsistent report card, based at least on the mixed reaction to a recent screening.
There’s a high school senior with the same problem at the center of this off-kilter charmer, directed by Paul Weitz from screenwriter Karen Croner’s adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s serio-comic novel. That’s Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), a brilliant oddball with a lousy GPA who got stellar scores on his SAT and AP exams. Paul Rudd plays Jeremiah’s principal John Pressman, an earnest free spirit who’s so determined to get his misfit star pupil into a good school that he calls up his old college classmate Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), a Princeton University admissions officer.
John also has discovered — or believes he has discovered — a familial connection between Portia and Jeremiah, an adoptee who is the same age as the child Portia gave up for adoption when she was an undergraduate. Believing that she is Jeremiah’s birth mother, Portia’s maternal instinct suddenly kicks in.
That complicates her job, which depends on Portia’s ability to accept or reject an applicant based not on emotion, but on quantifiable academic suitability.
Have I mentioned that "Admission" is not especially funny?
The trailer can’t seem to make up its mind. On the one hand, it looks like a satire of academia. On the other hand, it could be a gentle rom-com. In truth, it’s neither.
Or rather, it’s both, to some degree. Mostly, it’s a tale of regret and letting go, and how the paths that our lives take matter less than the way we walk them. Like Weitz’s excellent "About a Boy," "Admission" is a serious film about life, relationships and growing up, with a gloss of humor.
On paper, some of it actually sounds quite heavy. Portia’s tart-tongued feminist mother (Lily Tomlin) has just undergone a double mastectomy. John is a single father, struggling to raise an African orphan (Travaris Spears). And Portia’s live-in boyfriend (Michael Sheen) unceremoniously dumps her early in the film.
Although Weitz and Croner keep things light, there’s a groundedness to the film, thanks largely to the fine supporting cast, which includes Wallace Shawn as Portia’s nebbishy boss, who is considering naming her as his replacement when he retires.
In their central roles, Rudd and Fey have a natural, unforced chemistry. John and Portia are cute as buttons, but they’re also goofy, confused and flawed people. So is Jeremiah. Wolff, a juvenile actor who cut his teeth on the Nickelodeon TV series "The Naked Brothers Band," really comes into his own here.
I’m not surprised the trailer seems to misrepresent "Admission." It’s difficult to pigeonhole. A little too quirky for the multiplex but too mainstream for the art house, it’s a film that could very easily get lost in the shuffle.
And that would be a shame. I feel the same way about "Admission" as the Princeton professor who’s asked to give Jeremiah a recommendation, based on the boy’s performance of an awkward ventriloquist skit inspired by philosopher Rene Descartes.
"Weird," the professor says, shaking his head. "I liked it." (PG-13, 107 minutes)
Olympus Has Fallen
Bystanders and tourists, soldiers, cops and Secret Service agents fall by the score in a movie about the unthinkable — a terrorist ground assault on Washington, D.C. (Hollywood is providing two such "unthinkable" assaults this year, with "White House Down" due out this summer.)
This is "Die Hard in the White House," with Gerard Butler manfully manning up as Mike Banning, the lone Secret Service Agent survivor after terrorists take over the White House and seize the president and most of the cabinet.
Not without a fight, of course. This president (Aaron Eckhart) boxes. And wait’ll you see the presidential head-butt.
Banning is a former White House detail member, on the outs because of a life-or-death decision he made months before. When the gunship sweeps over D.C., when ordinary Asian tourists turn out to be terrorists, when innocent garbage trucks turn into tanks, Mike’s the man of the moment — dashing back inside his old stomping grounds, where a mastermind (Rick Yune of "Die Another Day" and "The Man with the Iron Fists") tells the chairman of the Joint Chiefs (Robert Forster) and speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman), "I am the man in control of your White House."
Banning is the only guy who can get to the fortified presidential bunker where the hostages are. He proceeds to stab, shoot and strangle his way through legions of terrorists, quipping in his updates as he shows off his trophies, by phone, to the rest of the government, which can only ask "Is he alive?" about Mike’s latest catch.
Butler is fine in this part, which demands little more of him than an ability to change magazines like he’s done it before. Many times. Mike has skills, which works against this "Die Hard." This isn’t John McClane, ordinary cop in over his head. Mike Banning has "special forces" on his resume, which robs the picture of some of its suspense.
But there’s pathos here, amid the carnage. A good cast (Melissa Leo is a feisty secretary of Defense) does what it can with a tin-eared script, making us care who lives and who dies. As an interesting side story, Mike’s wife (Radha Mitchell) is a nurse who deals with the carnage of America’s darkest day in an overwhelmed hospital emergency room.
Better thrillers make more of the whole shaky state of command in such calamities, wavering over terrorist demands, stringing out the suspense and playing up the clock ticking down toward whatever nuclear doomsday awaits should our hero fail. Director Antoine Fuqua (“Shooter") is plainly dealing with a script that shortchanges all that, and he’s not good enough to overcome it.
For all the bursts of blood, the gunplay and execution-style head-shots that punctuate scores of deaths, it’s hard to see "Olympus Has Fallen" (that’s Secret Service code) as much more than another movie manifestation of a first-person shooter video game. We’ve become a head-shot nation, and our thrillers are the poorer for it. (R, 120 minutes)
Long a bit player in movies, the 911 dispatcher finally gets a starring role. It would seem long overdue, since Halle Berry is apparently among their ranks. She’s an emergency operator in Los Angeles, where the trauma of a first kidnapping case has forced her to hang up the headset. But, having shifted to a trainer position, she’s lured back for a second kidnapping call when a rookie dispatcher can’t handle the frightening pleas from a taken teenager (Abigail Breslin) trapped in a car’s trunk. (R, 95 minutes)
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
The only incredible thing here is the way this comedy makes Steve Carell so thoroughly and irreparably unlikable. In a film about magic tricks, this is the most difficult feat of all. Burt Wonderstone, a selfish and flashy Las Vegas magician who once ruled the Strip alongside his longtime friend and partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), now finds his act has grown outdated and unpopular. Even within the confines of a comedy sketch, where he probably belongs, Burt would seem one-dimensional and underdeveloped with his hacky jokes and tacky clothes. Stretched out to feature length, the shtick becomes nearly unbearable — until, of course, the movie doles out its obligatory comeuppance, followed by redemption, and goes all soft and nice. By then it’s too little, too late. Jim Carrey gives it his all, as always, as the up-and-coming gonzo street magician who threatens Burt’s career, but Olivia Wilde gets little more to do than serve as the supportive ‘‘girl’’ as Burt’s assistant. (PG-13, 101 minutes)
Oz the Great and Powerful (PG, 130 minutes)
Safe Haven, (PG-13, 115 minutes)
Identity Thief, (R, 107 minutes)
Dead Man Down, Jack the Giant Slayer, 21 & Over.