Given that it’s been 7 years since the first Croods movie was released, the original target audience are all likely scattered across primary and high school now. But displaying the sense that it honestly doesn’t care about this statistic, The Croods: A New Age delights all the same, and very much presents itself as its own standalone outing, opting for the briefest of catch-up prologues to ensure anyone who hasn’t seen (or doesn’t remember) its predecessor won’t be put at a disadvantage.
Picking up right where the original left off, A New Age fills us in on how The Croods, a family of literal cavemen, came to meet the optimistic nomad Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds). By front-loading the film with Guy’s own tragic backstory – we see that his family were victims of a tar rising that swallowed his village – the narrative wisely lets this emotional current drive the film, rather than serve as a momentum-breaking detour. Hoping to locate the mythical “Tomorrow” – a place of salvation that his parents guided him towards – Guy and his adopted family – patriarch Grugg (Nicholas Cage), matriarch Ugga (Catherine Keener), their dim-witted son Thunk (Clark Duke), ferocious grandmother, the appropriately named Gran (Cloris Leachman), wild youngest Sandy (Kailey Crawford), and headstrong daughter (and head-over-heels in love with Guy) Eep (Emma Stone) – survive through the uncertainty of the land.
There’s very little bathing between the lot of them, they sleep in a collective pile, and their food source is whatever they can find, but it’s the life they have become accustomed to, so when they do actually find “tomorrow” it’s all a bit of a shock that their way of living isn’t necessarily the only way. Tomorrow isn’t a contrived metaphor but an actual sanctuary overseen by the Bettermans (emphasis on the better), a trio of more defined humans who just happen to be old family friends of Guy’s family. They shower, they live in a multi-level treehouse, they possess an abundance of food, and they even wear sandals…they’re everything the Croods aren’t, and for Guy it’s a conflict of interest he isn’t sure how to navigate.
Betterman matriarch Hope (a pitch perfect Leslie Mann) is a passive aggressive little number who, whilst initially hospitable, wants the Croods gone from her oasis. Husband Phil (Peter Dinklage) wants Guy to stay so he can match him up with daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran) who, in return, wants to embrace the more free-spirited mentality of the Croods, finding herself something of a kindred spirit in Eep; the two of them meeting is quite a joyous occasion as they fall instantly into the stereotypical trope of teenage girls connecting through their overly-excited vocal tones. And then there’s Guy caught in the middle, wanting to both honour his family’s wishes by habituating with the Bettermans but not sacrificing his relationship with Eep, something that is threatened when he starts to adopt the Bettermans way of life by dressing like them and talking down to the way the Croods live.
Of course, whatever conflict the Dan Hagerman/Kevin Hagerman/Paul Fisher/Bob Logan-penned script conjures is put aside when their respective sanctuaries are threatened, and the Croods and the Bettermans unite (however reluctantly) to save their livelihoods. It’s a standard plot but A New Age seems to delight in such simplicities, instead placing its focus on the comedy aspect of such familiarity. Despite their star power growing exponentially since the last film, Reynolds (who in 2013 was still building his way up from the Green Lantern misfire, 3 years away from Deadpool) and Stone (who won the Best Actress Oscar for 2016’s La La Land) appear more than eager to jump back into voicing Guy and Eep, the two infusing their characters with a genuine touch of organic enthusiasm. Mann’s signature style of manic energy is once again on display as the incredulous Hope, and Dinklage has the perfect tone of smug colourlessness to bring Phil to fruition, but if there’s anyone who throws their all into the film, it’s Nicholas Cage.
An actor who seldom sees involvement in theatrical projects as of late – despite averaging a release 4-5 films a year for the last decade-or-so – Cage energises Grugg with a certain type of vitality that only he can possess; I can only imagine how physically animated he was during the recording process. The genuine care he hones for his family, and the initial distain for Dinklage’s Phil, is evident in his delivery, and it’s the type of voice performance that transcends the animation, serving as a further reminder of just how enveloping an actor Cage truly is.
As fellow studio Pixar continues to move their animated projects further away from young children (you have to admit that recent projects like Inside Out, Coco, and Onward were all imbued with a certain maturity beyond the tike crowd), there’s something quite comforting about the fact that DreamWorks still serves as a reminder that joyous, simple amusement is worthy of enjoyment. That’s not to say A New Age is by any means a childish film, but it’s going for the type of humour that doesn’t require a lot of thought, where a visual gag – however straightforward – can result in the type of big, genuine laughter that isn’t always evoked from films aimed at a younger market.
A sequel to The Croods wasn’t necessary, and waiting 7 years for this is admittedly too long, but, as a testament to director Joel Crawford, A New Age serves as a reminder of a simpler time in cinema, when family entertainment was a cheerful outing to the multiplexes and animated offerings didn’t rebel against their structure. “A New Age” may not be an apt description for what it’s presenting, but it’s choice to embrace simplicity means it’s exactly the type of media worthy of being seized itself. In a time when a new age of uncertain cinema landscape is approaching, A New Age is a warm reminder of an undemanding time.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Croods: A New Age is screening in Australian theatres from December 26th, 2020.