The Croods: A New Age The Croods: A New Age

Here’s an interesting test case for the U.S.’s flailing box office: a sequel to a commercial hit, 2013’s The Croods, which many will have forgotten, released at a time of rising coronavirus cases, when a trip to the theater entails a calculation of risk to the family — which is precisely one of the core themes of Dreamworks’ Croods franchise.

Having barely survived a string of natural disasters in the first film, our cave family — along with their homo-sapiens companion Guy — is searching for a new home. The gang promptly stumble into an Edenic walled garden, complete with forbidden fruit. It turns out to be the home of the Bettermans, a self-satisfied human couple who pride themselves on leading a sophisticated life in their treehouses. They are prototypes of the yoga-loving Bobos you can picture running a luxury eco-lodge today.

The Croods was essentially about tensions within the nuclear family, deriving its comedy from the endless squabbling within the tightly knit Crood pack, particularly around young Eep’s efforts to break away from her overbearing father Grug. By confronting the Croods with the Bettermans, A New Age projects another modern social dynamic onto this prehistoric world: class conflict.

The Croods are thrown by the Bettermans’ swanky technology — windows, showers, and the like — and the Bettermans disdain them in turn. But the story takes surprising turns. It turns out that the Bettermans, for all their debonair manner, are as fearfully protective of their daughter Dawn as Grug was of Eep. A love triangle is then set up between Dawn, Eep, and Guy, only to be exposed as a red herring when the two women strike up a touching friendship.

Many elements that made the first film a pleasure are preserved. The Croods, subtly redesigned, remain a winning hybrid of Neanderthal and homo sapiens: sensitive and empathetic, yet capable of turning brute on a dime, their facial features thickening to comic effect. The voice cast, which sat out the spin-off series Dawn of the Croods, returns, with Nicolas Cage once again stealing the show as the brawny but touchy Grug. Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann find the right note of smarm as the Bettermans, but their addition means some characters are sidelined (notably Catherine Keener’s mellow Crood matriarch Ugga).

By the midway point, then, A New Age is shaping up as an enjoyable social satire. But the current logic of Hollywood animation writing dictates that this is not enough. Hence the haphazard volley of meta-gags about heavy metal, Spandau Ballet, decade-old viral videos of yelling goats, and more. They start to grate. Meanwhile, the comedy and plot become increasingly dependent on the arbitrary workings of the film’s fauna. The parade of mutant animals, vividly colored and imbued with a frantic energy, may be a character designer’s dream, but the longer they spend onscreen, the less coherent things get.

The final act is so freighted with gags, dialogue, and action that it sinks the film. A New Age strays close to the lunatic comedy of Dreamworks’ Trolls franchise (director Joel Crawford was head of story on the first Trolls). But whereas those films embrace their own oddness, pushing into surrealism, A New Age feels compromised: it never knows how seriously it wants to speak about its characters.

We could also compare the film with Early Man (2018), a stop-motion caveman comedy from the U.K.’s Aardman Animations (where the first Croods film, perhaps not coincidentally, spent some time in development). Though by no means slow, it is more measured, comfortable with its low-key puns and sight gags. At times in A New Age, I had the impression that I was watching Early Man on 1.5x speed.

But Aardman’s film didn’t exactly set the box office alight, I hear you say. True. Equally true is that we’ll likely never get a clear measure of A New Age’s performance. With more American theaters closing every week, the film will be denied big numbers. But then Universal is not necessarily playing that game: the distributor has signed deals with leading cinema chains that collapse the theatrical window to as few as 17 days, creating the possibility of a home release by Christmas. A new age indeed.

“The Croods: A New Age” hits theaters on November 25.

Director: Joel Crawford
Producer: Mark Swift
Screenplay: Kevin Hageman & Dan Hageman and Paul Fisher & Bob Logan
Story: Kirk DeMicco, Chris Sanders
Editor: James Ryan
Production designer: Nate Wragg
Visual effects supervisor: Betsy Nofsinger
Head of character animation: Jakob Hjort Jensen
Head of story: Januel P. Mercado
Head of layout: Jon Gutman
Art director: Peter Zaslav
Head of environments: Damon Crowe
Head of lighting: Joanna Wu
Score: Mark Mothersbaugh
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman, Clark Duke, Leslie Mann, Peter Dinklage, Kelly Marie Tran