The last time we saw the prehistoric family known as the Croods, on the big screen at least, was in 2013. So much has happened to Hollywood and the world since then. It’s hard to imagine, seven years on, that any of the young people who saw the original film would still be invested enough in the characters to crave a sequel. They’ve outgrown it. So, existing as it does in that strange space between direct memory and nostalgia, “The Croods: A New Age” might be forced to build an audience from scratch.
Of course, if you want to do your research before seeing this new story, you can watch the first one on Netflix. That’s what I did. I thought it aged just fine, though it had many of the signature minor flaws that hound DreamWorks products in general. Regardless, as animation outfits go, DreamWorks is certainly a powerhouse. With franchises like “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda” to its credit, it’s hard to overstate the impact of the brand. Of course, there’s also “Trolls” and “Boss Baby” and “Madagascar” on the roster. Not every property is a blockbuster. Some are only serviceable. Not even Pixar nails it every time, though, and DreamWorks has had moments in the awards season sun. The Academy launched the Best Animated Feature category in 2002 and “Shrek” won that inaugural honor. DreamWorks won again in 2006 with “Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” but have been shut out ever since. For its part, “The Croods” was nominated in 2014, but there was no way Elsa and Olaf were going to let them win.
Those minor flaws I mentioned before are present in this new Croods film as well. DreamWorks movies often seem to have a slightly dislocated funny bone. The sight gags and one-liners routinely fall very flat and the general balance between serious and comedic moments feels architectural instead of authentic. The visuals are always stunningly drawn and immersive, but the beings that inhabit them sometimes lack dimension. There are also a few issues specific to sequels to contend with here. That seven-year gap between movies hasn’t helped, especially given the desire of the directors to build on the original by overstuffing part two with countless winks and allusions. I wouldn’t have gotten many of the inside jokes if I hadn’t watched the first film just days before. There is a very clever “last time on The Croods” opening sequence, but it doesn’t do enough to bridge the better part of a decade. As I said before, “The Croods: A New Age” might just have to stand on its own two bare feet. That’s where the casting comes in.
DreamWorks never lacks for A-list voice talent. Pixar and Disney often take chances on lesser known artists, but DreamWorks casts are almost always loaded, top to bottom, with names. The entire Croods group is back for A New Age. Nicholas Cage, Katherine Keener, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Cloris Leachman. Add in Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann and you’ve got more star power than any live-action film could probably handle. The themes of the film are the importance of family, resistance to change, the old versus the new – fairly typical fare for an animated tale. But in the hands of such icons, everything is better than it should be. The punchlines miss more than they hit, sure, but there’s comfort in knowing Tyrion Lannister and Deadpool just delivered them. I know Nicholas Cage might have more detractors than fans these days. He’s very effective as the Crood patriarch though, making the most of his natural volatility and creating a believably paternal anchor point at the center of an experience that’s fun enough, but never funny enough.
“The Croods: A New Age” probably shouldn’t make you leave your safe zone. Not yet, anyway. I’m not sure if the 2020 animation landscape is actually more competitive than 2013, but with seven years more top-notch movies to compare to than the original, this sequel will have a hard time standing out over time.