The four-film Ice Age franchise has made almost three billion (yes, with a “b”) dollars worldwide, telling happy, animated tales of prehistoric life. But aside from a glorified cameo in the first installment, the role of the caveman has been completely ignored.

Leave it to Dreamworks to look out for the common (Neanderthal) man.

The Croods wonderfully tracks a cave family who set out on a fantastic voyage across the wilderness when their home is destroyed. And it leaves last month’s yawn-inducing Escape from Planet Earth in its dust; who knew that a tale of primitive life would dance circles around ray gun-toting space warriors?

Chalk it up to the brilliance of co-director and co-screenwriter Chris Sanders, the genius behind the five-star How to Train Your Dragon. Here (along with Space Chimps‘ Kirk De Micco) he crafts an eye-popping wonderland. The Croods includes some of the most visually stunning computer animation ever put on a hard drive.

Grug (Nicolas Cage) is the hyper-protective patriarch of a clan that includes teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone). She loves to go out exploring, but he wants to just keep everyone safe in the cave. (Along with Eep’s fiery red hair, that will only make you think of Pixar’s Brave a dozen or so times.)

One night she trips on a fire (ooh!)-toting dude named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who tells her that the world is ending and that her family needs to move. Sure enough, their cave meets its violent end and the hand of shifting tectonic plates.

So begins a journey that takes the family (and Guy) through all kinds of exotic locales; some look straight out of Avatar, others will remind you of Up or The Wizard of Oz. (You haven’t really lived until you’ve seen a murmuration of piranha birds.)

The movie is decidedly thin on plot, but there’s plenty of eye candy and sight gags to keep things interesting for all ages. The violence is never more than goofy (at times it actually feels like an old Roadrunner & Wile E. Coyote cartoon), and the only intense scenes involve giant clouds of smoke rumbling toward the family from across the wilderness.

It all adds up to help make The Croods a good ol’-fashioned family film with, as a bonus, plenty of nice messages and good morals. 21st Century technology has never made the Paleolithic Era look so good.

4/5 stars