“The Croods: A New Age,” the on-again off-again sequel to the DreamWorks Animation blockbuster, is the perfect Thanksgiving diversion during COVID. In fact, the timing couldn’t be better with its exploration of tribalism and disunity. It all happens when the titular prehistoric family discovers an idyllic, walled-in paradise and an advanced family called the Bettermans (Peter Dinklage, Lesley Mann, and Kelly Marie Tran). But a rivalry develops over the free-spirited Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who’s trapped between the past and present in his quest for the Utopian Tomorrow.
“It’s funny, how over the three years that we’ve been working on it, the story has become more relevant and timely,” said first-time director Joel Crawford (head of story on “Trolls”). “We wanted to celebrate the tight family bond that the Croods share, and then you meet the Bettermans, who live behind a wall and have walls between walls in their huts and have all these modern advancements, but have lost that familial connection with each other. But it does take on a new meaning during the pandemic. We are all experiencing the Betterman lifestyle of [being confined to the comfort of our homes].”
While Grug (Nicolas Cage) bonds with Phil (Dinklage) in his man cave, Ugga (Catherine Keener) and Hope (Mann) display more maternal tension, and Dawn (Tran) creates a wedge between Guy and Eep (Emma Stone). “There’s this need for connection and we’ve experienced that during this pandemic,” Crawford added. “And that’s what is celebrated in ‘Croods,’ not breaking each other into tribes, not seeing each other’s differences [the physicality of the Croods and the intellect of the Bettermans], but embracing them.”
The DreamWorks team created a more fantastical world for the Croods to play in (led by art director Peter Zaslav), with lots of exotic plants and imaginative hybrid creatures, and that meant the colors, textures, and lighting had to really pop. It also required more emphasis on stylization for the characters, too. “The first ‘Croods’ was more photoreal in rendering and texturing, but we’ve taken that down a bit and managed to utilize more of a distilled realism, more of a simplified caricature,” said Jakob Jensen, head of character animation, who was the Guy character lead on “The Croods.”
The boldest sequence, though, was the “Thunder Sisters” ride to the rescue: an ode to female empowerment led by Gran (Cloris Leachman). The look was inspired by heavy-metal album covers from Iron Maiden and Slayer, featuring big, bold lettering in the style of Frank Frazetta’s “Conan the Barbarian”-type drawings. Jensen posed Eep on Chunky, Grug’s pet Macawnivore, and Zaslav used that as a starting point for the overall look.
“Our job was to execute and push it, making it appealing and readable,” added Jensen. “Joel works hard with the layout team for action. It’s pre-choreographed and cut well. There’s so much stuff going on and we’re going from real-time to Bullet Time [the slow-motion technique from “The Matrix”] and out of it again. We also had fancy renders to get motion blur.”
Then there are the Punch Monkeys, the prehistoric primates seen briefly in the first movie, but who become the scene stealers of the sequel. They communicate through physical abuse and Guy, unfortunately, is the only one who understands their language. The highlight of Reynolds’ voice performance is narrating their politically complicated backstory while intoning every violent blow suffered by his character.
“We were quite worried about the violence,” Jensen said. “When does it hurt? How graphic can you get? We mixed it up and made it sillier. There was no blood, but I made a version of Guy all punched up with bruises and an enormous eye and his jaw broken, just to see if we could break him with our [Premo] software and make him look funny, which we could.”
For the director, the physical abuse was about showing communication between very different people, and the ability to listen. He emphasized that’s what we need during this post-election transition and pandemic situation. “The future is very unknown, especially in these times,” Crawford said. “But there’s strength that comes from unity and that’s what’s at the heart of this ridiculous comedy.”