'The Croods: A New Age': Film Review

The Croods: A New Age (2020)
Courtesy of Universal
A Darwinian under-achiever.
11/25/2020

Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds return as core members of the Paleolithic pack struggling to survive, this time at odds with a family higher up the evolutionary ladder.

It's been seven years since DreamWorks spliced the DNA of the Ice Age franchise with The Flintstones and gave us The Croods, an amiable adventure whose vibrant 3D visuals and zippy slapstick action helped disguise the lack of smart humor in its storytelling. You might be forgiven for wondering who asked for a sequel to a film that didn't fossilize much of an impression in the animated landscape. But that forgettable 2013 entry earned almost $600 million worldwide, which seems reason enough for the studio to scuttle back to the Stone Age with a new creative team. Alas, that's where the inspiration ends in this frantically over-plotted follow-up.

The first film was salvaged out of an aborted Aardman collaboration and was written and directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, who retain story credit here. It chronicled the survival struggle of a family of six cave dwellers, battling hunger, fantastical hybrid predators and the geological chaos of tricky tectonic plates that forced them out into the light in search of tomorrow.

Beyond the physical dangers of their primitive world, the conflict hinged on the overprotective anxiety of prehistoric patriarch Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage) as the natural curiosity of his feisty eldest daughter Eep (Emma Stone) was stoked by the arrival of dreamy fellow teen Guy (Ryan Reynolds). The sole survivor of a family wiped out in a cataclysmic event, he was blessed with upright posture, better bone structure and a higher forehead as well as a grasp of revolutionary concepts like fire, footwear and accessories (a pet sloth serves as his belt). The clash between lunkhead Grug's brawn and visionary Guy's brains created friction until they came to an inevitable understanding, realizing that both strength and ideas could help protect the family.

The new installment is directed with minimal flair by Joel Crawford, a longtime story artist in the DreamWorks Animation trenches, and written with a similar dearth of imagination by brothers Kevin and Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan. That committee has taken characters with limited charm and given them even less distinction, plugging a mostly samey continuation of their story full of action so manic and exhausting it often plays like a video game.

An early whir of intended excitement with the clan forming a kill circle to ward off attack from an army of kangadillos (as the name suggests, a kangaroo-armadillo cross) is a dispiriting sign of what's to come — over and over with diminishing returns. Few if any gags here come close to those that worked the first time around, like the Croods' weaponized toddler (Kailey Crawford), who prompted the wild battle cry, "Release the baby!"

The chief attempt to make the sequel less juvenile is the introduction of slightly more adult humor via Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann), whose more advanced state is underlined in their name. When Grug discovers their walled farm — equipped with Flintstones-style inventions like a shower and a flush toilet, irrigated with mountain spring water and full of exotic crops ripe for the picking — the Croods believe they've found tomorrow. But the snobbish Bettermans' only interest in the troglodyte freeloaders is in keeping Guy around as a mate for their teenage daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran). A sleek top-knot and some vanilla scented body wash later, Guy is an easy convert to the comforts of more civilized living.

That set-up yields some ho-hum romantic confusion for Eep, who nonetheless relishes the newfound pleasures of female friendship with Dawn. The Betterman offspring in turn blossoms as she breaks away from her suffocating parents and experiences the forbidden thrills of life beyond the walls, accompanying Eep astride Chunky, the Croods' giant jungle cat-macaw hybrid.

There are mildly amusing interludes like the bro bonding of Grug and the manipulative Phil in the latter's man-cave steam room; the passive-aggressive attempt of Hope to send Grug's wife Ugga (Catherine Keener) and her brood back where they came from with a travel gift basket; or the discovery of a picture window in the Bettermans' sprawling treehouse, which turns preteen Thunk Crood (Clark Duke) into an instant couch potato. But none of this constitutes anything that could really be called plot momentum.

In that sense, the screenwriters get desperate with an overly complicated but inane subplot that encourages Crawford to floor the accelerator. This concerns the Bettermans' need to deliver a steady supply of bananas to appease the volatile, multi-subspecies population of "punch monkeys," angry beasts that communicate with a sock to the jaw. Small children and stoners might get a laugh out of that level of throwback Looney Tunes violence; I scarcely cracked a smile. The addition of other fanciful creatures like land sharks and wolf spiders just adds to the wearisome overload of it all, though perhaps that will work for short-attention-span under-10s.

When war erupts between humans and apes, the Croods' ornery old Gran (Cloris Leachman) steps up for battle, rekindling the spirit of an ancient tribe of warrior women to which she once belonged, called The Thunder Sisters. They get their own theme tune, courtesy of HAIM, and their own busy old-school Saturday morning cartoon series title sequence. Elsewhere, too, the creative team mixes up the animation approach with hand-drawn ersatz cave-painting scenes.

Editor James Ryan and composer Mark Mothersbaugh work overtime keeping the thin story barreling along to a concluding message almost identical to that of the first movie — that strength and intellect are mutually beneficial and a unified pack is the way forward. But despite the talents of the pro voice cast (Cage and Stone once again are MVPs) and the attention to detail in the CG environments, the movie is more often assaultive than engaging, and seldom genuinely funny. Unless you think slapping a soundtrack of Partridge Family and Spandau Ballet pop hits on a prehistoric romance is hilarious, in which case, you're welcome to it.

In an era where there's no shortage of clever animated features that appeal to kids while still tickling the grownups, the laughs here are about as fresh as the short-lived 1960s sci-fi comedy, It's About Time. That CBS series starring the great Imogene Coca lasted just 18 episodes before audiences grew tired of the repetitive Stone Age situations and the creators attempted a makeover by transporting the cave people to contemporary Los Angeles. Never heard of it? The same extinction probably awaits the Croods films 50 years from now.

Production company: DreamWorks Animation
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman, Clark Duke, Leslie Mann, Peter Dinklage, Kelly Marie Tran, Kailey Crawford
Director: Joel Crawford
Screenwriters: Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan; story by Kirk DeMicco, Chris Sanders
Producer: Mark Swift

Production designer: Nate Wragg
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Editor: James Ryan
Visual effects supervisor: Betsy Nofsinger
Casting: Christi Soper Hilt
Rated PG, 95 minutes