The credits for The Croods may list Monty Python alum John Cleese as a co-writer, but do not let this formality fool you. Cleese was only involved in the production’s early stages many years ago, when Aardman Animation was slated to produce it. Eventually, however, DreamWorks picked up the project and re-hauled it, stripping away any flavour and wit it might have once possessed. As a result, The Croods is a by-the-book animated family flick in the vein of the Ice Age sequels, hitting all expected story beats and never really doing enough to stand out. Although it begins with promise, it plummets into mediocrity and never recovers, with dull characters, flat pacing, rote scripting and a lack of compelling conflict keeping The Croods from reaching its full potential. It may entertain the kids to an extent, but that’s just not good enough.

The leader of a caveman family, Grug (Nicolas Cage) is profoundly terrified of the outside world, maintaining his mantra of “never not be afraid” and perpetually shielding his loved ones in their cave, including teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone), wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), son Thunk (Clark Duke), toddler Sandy (Randy Thom), and his mother-in-law (Cloris Leachman). As a result of Grug’s vigilance, they are seemingly the last family of their kind to not be wiped out by natural selection. Eep feels trapped, though, and grows curious about what the rest of the world holds. Lured out of the cave at night by the glow of a fire, Eep meets Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and his pet sloth Belt (Chris Sanders), an adventurous pair who warn Eep that the land is collapsing due to volcanos and earthquakes. Smitten with Guy, Eep pushes her family to join him after their cave collapses, setting out to find safer ground and a new place to call home. Grug is dragged out of his comfort zone, forced to confront the perils of the world while trying to protect his family.

Fortunately, writer-directors Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco eschew pop culture references and use of trashy pop songs, which is groundbreaking for a DreamWorks picture. This aside, though, The Croods is extraordinarily by-the-numbers, abiding by an overly clichéd three-act structure and deploying character arcs straight out of the Animation 101 handbook. Unoriginality by itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but Sanders and De Micco lack the imagination and wit to allow the movie to genuinely soar. Moreover, the story’s central message is confused and muddled. The flick posits that living within rules and routines is not living at all, and that taking risks will give you a full life. But one can understand Grug’s viewpoint, as the planet is populated with dangerous beasts at every turn. Plus, it’s even explained at the film’s beginning that all of their neighbours have died, and they’ve only survived because of Grug’s diligence. Sanders and De Micco seem to vilify Grug, but for no good reason. And is it really the best thing for a children’s animated movie to tell its audience that they should run wild and not listen to their parents?

Simply put, The Croods should be far funnier. Ice Age may be getting drearier with each passing instalment, but it has an ace in the hole in the form of Scrat, whose acorn-related antics alone make those flicks worth watching at least once. Alas, The Croods does not have a Scrat. And without it, there’s not a great deal of comic vigour or punch to the material. Instead, Sanders and De Micco go through the predictable motions without making the picture goofy enough for the little kids, or smart or mature enough for the adults. There was plenty of potential for the writer-directors to deliver a daring climax in the vein of How to Train Your Dragon (which was hugely affecting and exhilarating in equal measure), but Sanders and De Micco opt for bland safeness. Still, in spite of all this negativity, The Croods has its pleasures, mainly the luscious animation and a handful of effective set-pieces, not to mention the designs of the creatures. The Croods is all surface, but at least it’s a mildly effective surface at times.

Even though the material is basic, The Croods is livened to an extent by the cast. Rising star Stone is a good fit for Eep, while Leachman is expectedly entertaining. But it’s Cage who runs away with the whole movie (trust Cage to steal the show in an animatedproduction), turning Grug into a lovable presence and conveying a sense of emotion at times. Cage sounds like he’s actually acting, rather than just reciting lines. Meanwhile, Duke and Keener are decent enough, though Reynolds is so utterly non-descript and flavourless that you may not even realise he’s voicing Guy.

DreamWorks animated movies are distinctly hit and miss. Whereas Pixar always produces good movies as long as the word “Cars” isn’t in the title, DreamWorks has only produced a handful of memorable winners. Alas, The Croods will not be remembered as one of the studio’s best titles. On its own terms it’s not too shabby, but it looks extremely below-par when placed against other recent animated movies, like RangoParaNormanHow to Train Your DragonToy Story 3 and Tangled. It’s not funny or emotional enough. Perhaps if John Cleese remained aboard throughout the entire production, or if the movie remained housed as Aardman, The Croods would’ve been more meaningful and impressive. As it is, it feels really pre-packaged.