Delivering his best performance in years, Nicolas Cage provides the voice of Grug.

The animated family comedy “The Croods” has been slightly underrated by critics. According to Rotten Tomatoes, a website that collects reviews, only 67 percent of reviewers have given the movie a favorable rating. My expectations were fairly modest when I went to see it this week. I wasn't prepared for what a fast, funny and enjoyable ride it is.

It was co-directed by Chris Sanders, who also made “Lilo & Stitch” and “How to Train Your Dragon”. With “The Croods”, he's now three for three. Even though it's unlikely that cavemen living in the Ice Age talked like the family in “The Croods” talks, Sanders and his co-writer, Kirk De Micco, have used 21st century slang to create a hilarious and surprisingly emotional portrait of the modern-day family. And while celebrity voices are often a distraction in big-budget studio releases, “The Croods” is the rare animated movie that's been perfectly cast.

Delivering his best performance in years, Nicolas Cage provides the voice of Grug, the patriarch of a pre-historic family called the Croods. Grug is the ultimate overprotective dad; his motto is “never not to be afraid,” and he's prone to telling bedtime stories in which the characters are thinly disguised versions of his own family members, one of whom usually dies at the end because they haven't shown enough caution. The other family members include less overbearing mom Ugga (Catherine Keener), dopey son Thunk (Clark Duke), rebellious daughter Eep (Emma Stone), and ancient grandma Gran (Cloris Leachman), whom Grug hopes will one day come to the same unfortunate end as one of the characters in his bedtime stories.

The early scenes set in the Croods' cave dwelling and the rocky surrounding terrain are rambunctious and lively, as we see the family trying to retrieve a bird's egg in what amounts to a football game. The movie becomes more colorful and beautiful as the Croods are forced from their home by an earthquake that may or may not signal the end of the Ice Age. The way the look of the movie changes is a nice visualization of its main message, which is to “always follow the light.” As the characters try new things and gain enlightenment, the world becomes brighter and lovelier.

Leading the quest for enlightenment is Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a nomadic boy who warns the family of the impending apocalypse and who becomes the object of Eep's affection. A rivalry develops between Guy and Grug, as the family has to choose between Guy's more forward-thinking ideas and Grug's survivalist instincts. This results in one of the movie's funniest scenes, as Grug tries to come up with some ideas of his own, which include a pair of shades made out of a solid piece of wood you can't see through.

Sanders is ably assisted by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, who also served as a lighting consultant on DreamWorks' equally pretty but less funny “Rise of the Guardians”. The filmmakers reach the peak of their powers in a nighttime scene where Guy blows out a torch and reveals a thousand stars in the sky. The emotional scenes near the end when father and daughter start to come to an understanding are made even more powerful by the music of Alan Silvestri, who also composed the unforgettable score of the “Back to the Future” movies.

“The Croods” is one of the most consistently amusing animated movies I've seen in quite some time. As Grug and his family bicker and fight, it's almost like we're seeing an Ice Age version of one of those “Vacation” movies starring Chevy Chase. (“Do you want me to turn this family around?!” Grug yells at Eep and Thunk.) The animals in the movie don't talk, but they have other ways of making us laugh, especially the pet sloth that Guy uses to hold up his pants, aptly named Belt. I'm especially fond of the saber-toothed tiger Grug befriends, a development that makes Grug conclude he's “a cat person.”

“The Croods” is playing this weekend at the Augusta Historic Theatre, 523 State Street. Showtime is 7:30pm on Saturday and 2pm on Sunday. Tickets are $6.

Stephen is an AHS graduate who studied film and journalism in college. He's pleasantly surprised to see Nicolas Cage in a good movie. He lives in Wichita.