Cage Match

Wait! Something’s not right. Nic Cage’s body is missing.

The Croods
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The Croods

Release year: 2013 Posted June 8, 2014

“Well done is better than well said.”

Benjamin Franklin

The current state of children’s entertainment is abysmal, and The Croods doesn’t help. When mainstream children’s cinema had stakes and consequences, like in The Never-Ending Story, The Secret of NIMH, and The Goonies, it showed kids facing harsh realities like becoming an orphan, watching their family members die of pneumonia, and home foreclosure. Just like the real world, it was sometimes scary. Now it’s mostly pratfalls with some vapid messages repeated over and over.

I will never understand how people can make movies that are not interesting to adults and think that they will somehow be interesting to children. It’s an insult to everyone, and Dreamworks Studios is one of the worst offenders. Take, for example, any one those extended Shrek music videos they call “movies.” Don’t get butthurt about Shrek. Cute pop culture references and commodified nostalgia may fool you, but those movies suck.

Dreamworks has a problem of casting voice actors not by talent, but by celebrity name recognition in order to drive ticket sales. Contrast this with Pixar’s “Braintrust.” If this had been a Pixar movie, you can bet someone at some point would have felt empowered to point out that Nicolas Cage doesn’t sound like a hulking caveman, and suggested they look for someone better for the role. I doubt there’s much questioning of cash flow over at Dreamworks.

But does Nicolas Cage’s amputated voice coming from a different person even work in practice? The idea of giving Nic the space to go nuts vocally sounds good, but in The Croods, it falls flat. Nic does a satisfactory job, but the medium restrains him. So much is lost without his physical pageantry. It’s possible that more innovative, less formulaic animation could have compensated for Cage’s invisibility, but I doubt it. If my extensive research has shown me anything it’s that no force on the planet can outpace Cage’s physicality. Maybe it’s for the best that the animators at Dreamworks didn’t try.

Nicolas Cage, as we’ve previously noted, has intentionally shifted his understanding of acting away from naturalism and towards a bombastic, highly presentational style. What we haven’t yet addressed is that this intentional shift is a new type of acting that Cage credits himself with creating. He named it Nouveau Shamanic.

Nouveau Shamanic, described here (though heavily edited and in the context of a Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance press junket), is in part Cage’s attempt to bring acting back to the foundations of storytelling by using techniques of tribal shamans. Cage describes how, after reading Brian Bates’s The Way of the Actor: A Path to Knowledge & Power, he was inspired to eschew as many lies and falsehoods from acting as possible and get to the emotional truth of a role. A resonating excerpt of Bates’s book reads, “the way of the actor is not an esoteric discipline divorced from everyday life. It is everyday life, heightened and lived to the full, with an awareness of powers beyond understanding.”

I have held back from writing about Nouveau Shamanic, because it’s all too easy to roll your eyes at Cage’s “acting invention” and chalk it up to ego or a perceived disconnection from reality. After watching and critiquing almost forty Nicolas Cage movies, I contend that Nouveau Shamanic is an example of Nicolas Cage at his most grounded. It’s the clearest evidence so far of acting genius.

Most courses about the history of theater start with morality plays, implying that the art of acting began with medieval Christian theater and evolved from there. Cage dares to think differently and more deeply. He rejects the Middle Ages as a starting point and goes further back. Before the 15th century. Even before Christ. He challenges assumptions about what acting is without apologizing. By separating modern acting from its origins in Christian morality, you strip a lot of baggage from the craft. If what seems to us like normal acting evolved out of a way for religious zealots to reinforce moral ideologies, then maybe whatever sprang from this root is just as self-righteous and disingenuous. Acting based on propaganda is propagandistic.

Nouveau Shamanic is also further evidence that, to the extent Nic Cage is seen as a joke, he is in on it. He knows what he’s doing, how he looks, and how he sounds. He’s fully aware because it’s all intentional. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. No artist is successful all the time, except for one. Nouveau Shamanic tendencies appear in other artists’ work too, validating Cage’s approach. This example from Return of the Jedi comes to mind. Cage didn’t come up with the idea, but he is its most interesting, influential, and unambiguous practitioner today.

With such a commitment to taking acting back to its shamanic origins, Nic Cage’s voice cannot be grafted onto another body. His unique speech patterns make you turn your head to see what he’s doing. Existing only as a voice in a cartoon like The Croods was destined to be disappointing—which doesn’t bode well for G-Force, Astro Boy, The Ant Bully, and Christmas Carol: The Movie.

None of this should be taken as a slight to the separate craft of voice acting. For example, Billy West comes to mind as an unquestionable master of this art, but it is a different art. Voice acting does not mix with Nouveau Shamanic style, and Nouveau Shamanic style is so intrinsically Cage.

Movie?
Bad
Nic Cage’s (voice) acting?
Good to a point
Did his performance make the movie worse?
No, it was bad because Cage was caged