After debuting at the Berlin International Film Festival (yes, really) and entering the 2013 box office marketplace against some stiff competition (“Frozen,” “Despicable Me 2,” “Monsters University”), Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders’ original animated comedy “The Croods” did something kind of crazy: it made over half a billion dollars. As the 11th highest-grossing film of that year, the animated family film was an unexpected smash that obviously demanded a sequel. Just weeks after its U.S. release, DreamWorks Animation greenlit the no-duh follow-up…and it took nearly a decade to get to the big screen, buffeted by at least one cancellation, nearly a half dozen release dates, and a global health crisis.
Thus, “The Croods: A New Age” was born.
Was it worth the wait? Eh, sort of. Like its predecessor, Joel Crawford’s feature directorial debut offers a familiar story, some classic lessons, and a lot of caveman-centric humor in one inoffensive package. The good stuff is still good: full-throated voice performances from a star-studded cast (Nicolas Cage manages to make his role as a prehistoric dad fit neatly alongside other recent choices in his inscrutable career), a bevy of delightfully weird animals, and the kind of loving messaging that never goes out of style. But there’s also not-so-good stuff, including a straightforward animation style and a story that not only apes the original’s but those of other sequels (plus a plot point that feels weirdly like one that appeared in “Frozen 2”).
A vague catch-up opens the affair, re-introducing audiences to evolved interloper Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), whose arrival in “The Croods” kickstarted a series of misadventures that pushed the eponymous cave family into a brave new world. A quick flashback to the tragedy that took Guy’s family hints at the dramas to come, before dropping into the current status of the Crood brood. The first film ended with the clan gamely setting off to find a new home — the mythical “Tomorrow” that Guy’s own family dreamed of for him — after their previous cave was destroyed by a natural disaster (how timely).
Not much has changed in the interim, and patriarch Grug (Cage) remains the most beleaguered of dads, regardless of the time period he occupies. The conceit of “The Croods” is that all families, no matter where their place in history, are basically the same, and “A New Age” stretches that concept as the fam deals with a bevy of familiar issues. The main one: Not all Croods are content with the status quo — the pack mentality, the smelly “sleep pile,” the bad food — and that includes teenager Eep (Emma Stone), who is preparing to strike out on her own with the winsome Guy. What’s a cave dad to do?
Before Grug (and his much more even-keeled wife Ugga, voiced by Catherine Keener) can tackle that issue, something incredible happens: they find Tomorrow, or at least a lush paradise filled with food and fresh water and more colors than they have ever seen in their dust-covered lives. It sure as hell seems like the promised land.
Of course, there’s a complication, in the form of the evolved Betterman (“emphasis on the ‘better‘”) family, who have cultivated the space and aren’t super thrilled about sharing it with a grubby cave family — beyond Guy, who they knew as a child. (“The Croods” franchise has long enjoyed a nutty sense of time, space, and place, and if you’re bristling at the fact that “modern humans” are living alongside so-called cave people in this animated scenario, the wacky coincidences that bind Guy to the Bettermans might send you over the edge. Relax.)
The Bettermans’ evolved lifestyle, complete with sheltered kiddo Dawn (a charming Kelly Marie Tran) and a Swiss Family Robinson-inspired tree palace, only serve to bring out the cruder (sorry) nature of the Crood clan, who sense that it’s yet another threat to their way of life. At least the new space allows the film’s bland animation style the chance to break out into something often delightful, unleashing a palette of colors plus a wild assortment of crazy animals (punch monkeys, landsharks, and chicken seals, oh my!) that will inevitably inspire some cute plushies for the littlest audience members.
The tension between the old and the new creates some wholly expected divides that soon turn literal, with Grug and Phil Betterman (a very funny Peter Dinklage) facing off (in a “man cave,” of course) over Guy’s future and which family he really belongs with, while Ugga and Hope Betterman (an even funnier Leslie Mann) come to not-so-subtle blows over being very different “kinds of people.” The messaging is clear, but stories about acceptance, working through differences, and coming together are the bread and butter of kid-centric entertainment, and with good reason: They’re necessary.
“The Croods: A New Age” ultimately spins that off into a wacky adventure that somehow involves aforementioned punch monkeys (cute, but very punchy indeed), a revelation that the “Croods” franchise might intersect with the world of “Mad Max,” and a generous dash of female empowerment (plus awesome fake heavy-metal music to go with it). It’s a little silly, very colorful, and entertaining enough to deliver some good-hearted ideas that aren’t beholden to any period in time. Worth nearly a decade of push-pull to get here? Probably not, but on its own merits it’s a charming throwback — not necessarily a “new age,” but the remnants of a classic one.
Universal Pictures will release “The Croods: A New Age” in select theaters on Wednesday, November 25, with a premium VOD release to follow on Friday, December 18.
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