Not many folks will recall the tumultuous journey Dreamworks’ The Croods took to make it to the big screen in 2013. Having originally been announced under the title Crood Awakenings in 2005, the Stone Age set story of a luddite, his family, and the inventor who comes to rock their world was originally to be the first film of five unique Aardman/Dreamworks collaborative projects. When writing stalled and Aardman and Dreamworks parted ways however in the late 2000s, Lilo & Stitch and How To Train Your Dragon director Chris Sanders took up the film. Aardman would go on to make their own Neanderthalian romp, 2018’s incredibly underrated Early Man, whilst Sanders’ newly retitled The Croods would hit theatres in 2013, some eight years since the idea was originally conceived.
The Croods was not a revolutionary work of animated art by any means, its family-friendly tale of technophobia and coming-of-age relied heavily on slapstick violence and its script was as craggy as the caves from whence The Croods came. That being said, a fantastic ensemble cast including the talents of Nic Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, and the fantastic Cloris Leachman, as well as a softly delivered central sentiment about embracing change and the opportunities tomorrow affords us made Sanders’ film a safe bet at the box office and with cinemagoers. The film took over $500m at the box office, and a sequel as well as a Netflix animated TV series were greenlit soon after. The series came along in 2015, but by coincidence or ill-fate, a drawn out production and a pandemic would mean that by the time The Croods’ sequel arrived, as many years would have passed as had gone from the announcement of Crood Awakenings to The Croods’ big-screen bow. But was it worth the wait?
The Croods: A New Age picks up pretty much where the last film left off. Newly semi-enlightened patriarch Grug (Nic Cage) and his brood have crossed the great chasm that separated their old world from the tropical wonders on the other side. There, along with new addition to the family Guy (Ryan Reynolds), the Croods are introduced to Guy’s surrogate family, the tellingly named Bettermans. There’s Peter Dinklage’s hipster dad Phil, Leslie Mann’s Insta-inspired mom Hope, and daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran). They live in a high-walled paradise replete with sauna, windows (this era’s TV/iPad/zombifying device surrogate we are repeatedly reminded), and separate bedrooms – with beds! – to offer privacy, a concept entirely alien to the pile-on happy Croods.
Whilst early doors the meeting of slightly civilised man and Betterman throws up some comical misunderstandings and misadventures, all dealing in the same kind of boomer humour that simultaneously stunted and kept afloat the first film, newly instated director Joel Crawford’s film soon shows its heart and lets us know this isn’t to simply be another comedy of manners. While the first film’s central message can be distilled as essentially ‘the family that moves as one, stays as one’, this sequel asks the inevitable question of what happens when your family begin to grow up and naturally grow apart. How do you maintain the ties that bind without strangling the love you’ve spent the first years of your child’s life nurturing?
Eep (Emma Stone) and Guy (Ryan Reynolds) are contemplating venturing out into the world and making a home of their own, the sort Guy has never truly known and that Eep has never really had chance to imagine. This scares Grug, who has by his own admission grown and given up a lot to keep his family together. And so, when Phil sows the seed of a plan to set up Guy with Dawn, who was his childhood sweetheart, a sauna-stoned Grug unwittingly agrees to help sabotage his daughter’s happiness to preserve his family’s togetherness. This plot isn’t particularly nuanced or well extrapolated upon – this is a kid’s film after all, and if it ain’t Pixar then far too often it just ain’t gonna be that deep – but, as a new father, I did find the way the film shone a light on the tensions between a father’s desire to keep his idealised vision of his family and his daughter’s to pursue her dreams an interesting direction for the writers to take.
This central diegesis is helped to no end by the cloyingly smug (deliberately so of course – The Dink is a gent in real life) performance of a great Peter Dinklage, whose Phil Betterman is a low-key antagonist figure that projects nirvana onto a world he knows he and his family are just as lost in as the Croods. There’s an interesting thematic preoccupation with the perils and hypocrisies of consumerism and faux sustainability efforts that a better script could have really elevated the overall film with – instead, it’s an interesting subtext that offers something to talk about in the car on the way home from the cinema.
In terms of the animation on offer here, it is safe to say that it isn’t just the Croods as a family who have come a long way since their first outing – The Croods: A New Age is a vibrant, inventively populated feature. The fictitious Croodaceous landscape is diverse, realised in mesmerising purples, luscious greens, and lit with a magic hour sort of glow that makes the past feel palpably magical. The Bettermans’ utopian homestead is filled with nifty inventions and neat sight gags that nod to current trends in a way that is a lot more subtle than the script’s clobbering ‘Back in my day…’ brand of parent-pandering bants. The Croodacean beasties and critters are varyingly cute, creepy, and eye-catching, developing one of the small wonders of the first film into an ever-growing bestiary – a very rewarding post-credit sting extends that bestiary to the viewers in the cinema in a way that would warm even the coldest of hearts.
Elsewhere, the characters themselves never reach the expressive heights of the talent who lend them their voices, but the all-star ensemble’s commitment to their work reminds us exactly why they each are stars – they elevate the projects they’re attached to and, invariably, inject life into their occasionally crude (pun intended) visual forms. Kelly Marie Tran and Emma Stone especially work wonders with their burgeoning friendship as Eep and Dawn – the trailer gave away the gag already, but their initial meeting’s descent into a squeal of excitement at finally having someone their own age and sex to relate to is a really neat moment; truth be told, it is the mini character moments of comedy that A New Age excels at, but the writers’ and animators’ compulsion to swing for the fences with grand setpieces – whilst understandable – often is when the film threatens to devolve and send its progressive ambitions back an age or two.
The Croods: A New Age overall is never anything less than a solid family film. It also never threatens to be anything more than that. But, with improved animation, improved humour and plotting, and a clear sense of evolution from its predecessor, this sequel steps into a new age with a sure foot and promises some much needed escape during continuing troubled times.
The Croods 2: A New Age is out in cinemas now!