You know that thing where you watch a movie so full of imagination and life that you wish for more time in that world? I was so enchanted with 2013’s The Croods that I’ve long wished for a sequel that’d deliver more of this charismatic caveman clan. Finally, despite a string of delays, The Croods: A New Age has given me just that. Now, I realize I should have been more specific.
Fans of the first film should be warned: writers/directors Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders have not returned. Instead, they have been swapped out by a quartet of screenwriters (Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan) and helmer Joel Crawford, who makes his feature directorial debut here. Yet rather than bringing new ideas to evolve the concept of The Croods, this team’s motto seems to be: MORE OF THE SAME.
Once more, the heart of the film is a love triangle between the daring Eep (a spirited Emma Stone), her fire-sparking boyfriend Guy (Ryan Reynolds on hunky soft-guy mode), and her overprotective father Grug (a perfectly grumbling Nicolas Cage). Sure, after the family’s first adventure, Guy has been welcomed into the family and their nightly sleep pile. However, Grug is threatened when his potential son-in-law begins throwing around words like “privacy,” urging Eep that they could become a pack of two. Again, Grug is afraid of losing his daughter to another man–strike that–the same man.
In the midst of his paternal panic, the Croods stumble upon an oasis, rich in food and free from predators. It’s heaven on earth, the great Tomorrow, they’ve so long sought after, and–it’s occupied. Enter the Bettermans, a family of three that are the caveman equivalent of the faux-bohemian bourgeoisie. They don’t spend all day hunting and gathering. These posh tree dwellers shower, sauna, snack, and speak with choking condescension as soon as their handmade sandals enter frame. Coming from the same tribe that Guy lost in his youth, the Bettermans share his flair for inventions, and so offer a parade of visual gags that re-imagine toilets, elevators, and panic rooms for this caveman age. Once more, Grug’s family is awe-struck while he is a proud Neanderthal, not wanting to change (again).
Also not evolving are most of the Croods. While this film splinters focus to give more screen time to the supporting members of the clan, Ugga (a winsome Catherine Keener), Thunk (a dopey Clark Duke), and Sandy (a grrrring Kailey Crawford) are as broadly sketched as before. Ugga is loving to her children, and defensive when they are insulted by the primly passive-aggressive Hope Betterman (a smartly cast and perfectly snitty Leslie Mann). Sandy growls and chases things like the feral baby she was before, and Thunk’s entire arc is becoming a couch potato, obsessed with watching the Betterman version of television (a window). Thankfully, Gran (the superbly snarky Cloris Leachman) gets some added edge with a badass backstory that gears into a heavy metal-themed climax battle that is suitably spectacular.
As for the rest of the characters, they are chiefly defined by contrast. Once more Grug seems a lunkish brute next to a more modern man, this time Phil Betterman (a smooth Peter Dinklage), who wears a man-bun, has a secret man cave, and a bizarre rule about bananas. His daughter Dawn (a chipper Kelly Marie Tran) is the polar opposite of Eep, a sheepish girl who is unscathed by the dangers of the wider world. So, while the fathers conspire to matchmake Guy to please themselves, the daughters hop on a saber-tooth tiger to sneak out for some wild fun.
It is a joy to see the fleet of male screenwriters dodge the misogynistic cliché that two girls on screen with one boy must battle for him. Dawn is excited to see literally any other person in the world, but shows no romantic interest in Guy. As for Eep, she’s elated to finally have a girl friend and soon realizes that despite their superficial differences, they have a lot in common about their desires to be free spirits.
There are good bones here that make for some fun sequences involving violently vividly colored critters, like spider-wolves, punch monkeys, and more. If you’re hungering for a family-friendly romp, The Croods: A New Age can serve that modest request. To Crawford’s credit, he weaves in funny and surprising visual gags, that turn flaming rocks or an aflame Grug into heart symbols that blithely play as backdrop to Eep and Guy’s all-consuming, pop-music blaring romance arc. It’s likewise fun to see the materialistic trappings of our modern age sneered at by the skeptical Grug and recognized as traps by the insightful Eep.
However, the overall messaging of this movie is clumsy and outright odd. See, The Bettermans have constructed their better world snatching resources from outside their territory to make their gardens flourish. Then, they built a wall around it to protect what they’ve claimed as theirs. They are colonizers with all the evils that implies. Like a string of sequels in the past couple of years (Frozen 2, Maleficent 2, Thor 3), there is a criticism of such actions baked into the film. Yet, the Bettermans are not the film’s villains! Sure, they built a wall around their pilfered land and resources to keep others out. Sure, their actions have lead to environmental disaster, violence, and genocide. But hey! They are civilized people who shower in perfumed water!
Without getting heavy into spoilers, the film points a finger at the Bettermans, but makes them pay no real consequences for their actions. Instead, it’s enough for them to join forces with the Croods to destroy a monster the Bettermans essentially created…but only after it directly threatens their well-being. Considering all that’s going on right now, adults–and even adolescents who are politically aware–might understandably side-eye the sequel’s allegory, especially considering what characters come to represent indigenous people. Yet with all the action, wackiness, and bombastic music (including a superb cover of “I Think I Love You” performed by the one and only and awesome Jack Black), kiddos might miss the messaging, which shrugs off such evils with a, “Well, they meant well (for themselves…and isn’t that enough?)” It’s a bar so low that you could trip on it. And this sequel does.
As such, The Croods: A New Age begins as a hasty rehashing of much of the virtues of the first film. However, that one was all about the wonders that can be found if one broadens their horizons. In trying to rehash that message, this sequel somehow lumbered into “good fences make good neighbors” ideology. The result is a film that feels familiar yet troublingly crude.
“The Croods: A New Age” is in theaters today.