2020 has been a year of incalculable oddities, and somewhere fairly high up on the list has to be the very existence of The Croods: A New Age. It’s been nearly eight years since the arrival of the first Croods film, which made a decent enough splash at the box office (primarily internationally) to spawn this long-gestating follow-up. But unlike the other DreamWorks Animation release from 2020, Trolls World Tour, you won’t be able to rent A New Age on VOD instantly. No, if you and the family are just jonesing for some new entertainment this holiday weekend, you’ll have to brave the theaters amidst skyrocketing cases in a still very real pandemic situation. Wonder Woman 1984? It’s going to be available on HBO Max this Christmas, the same day it’s in theaters. Soul? Just straight to streaming on Disney+.
But no, The Croods: A New Age is the one you can rush out to see in theaters. There’s not much reason why you should, though.
Even if the pandemic wasn’t a thing, this second Croods would be a head-scratcher. Its decent success aside, the original film is arguably forgotten enough that the second film has to open with one of its characters catching us up on the story. The Crood family spent the first film searching for Tomorrow, some fabled place that would be a safe haven from all sorts of monstrous animals that want to destroy these cave people.
During that film, the eldest Crood child, Eep (voiced by Emma Stone), fell in love with Guy (Ryan Reynolds), to the dismay of her father Grug (Nicolas Cage). Now, all has smoothed over as the family finally achieves its goal. Early on in A New Age, they find Tomorrow, and it really does seem like utopia, a genuine safe haven free of animal attacks or other deathly challenges. But perfection is hard to take, especially since the Croods encounter perfection in the form of the other human family they meet, the Betterman clan. The Betterman parents (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann) are obnoxious and condescending, trying to convince Guy to hook up with their daughter (Kelly Marie Tran) instead, and acting dismissive towards the more primitive Croods.
Part of what makes The Croods: A New Age so strange is that it serves as a reminder of how recently DreamWorks Animation seemed like a genuine competitive threat to the computer-animation dominance of Pixar Animation Studios. Pandemic aside, the last few years have been full of rough and rocky patches for DWA; films like Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Home, and Turbo all fell flat at the box office, failing to create insta-franchises the way that Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon and Shrek all did. Now, DreamWorks Animation mostly makes TV versions of the films that used to dominate the box office. (The Croods is no different – there was a show released on Netflix between the two features, running for four seasons.) The Croods: A New Age is better than these kinds of also-ran TV series, many of which serve to distract little kids for 20 minutes at time. But it’s just barely better (and for full transparency, this writer received a digital screener viewed in the safety of his own home).
The big reason why A New Age feels so intensely uninspired is simple enough to identify. Where he first film was co-written and co-directed by Chris Sanders, of How to Train Your Dragon and Lilo & Stitch, this film only bears his name among the credits as a co-story writer. Sanders’ anarchic spirit lends a special quality to those films, and it’s keenly missing here. A New Age is at its strongest visually when the animating team is concocting distinctive ways to visualize the neon-hued Tomorrow. (If there is any good reason for you to see this on a big screen, it would simply be to see a lot of the images on a massive screen instead of your HDTV. Still not that good a reason.) The story is fairly rote, a blend of the hoariest Flintstones-esque cliches to fill out a feature-length running time. Will Eep and Guy reconcile? Or will Guy be swayed by the Bettermans to change his whole personality? Will Grug learn to live with the Bettermans? Contain your lack of surprise at the answers.
Aside from the visuals, the only other great joy of The Croods: A New Age is the undeniable fact that even in animation, Nicolas Cage can be gloriously unhinged. Grug is a perpetually frustrated paterfamilias, trying to keep the family together but being frustrated at how quickly they all seem to fit into Tomorrow. The rest of the voice cast is fine without ever feeling like they’re even attempting to match Cage’s energy. (Though how could they?)
The Croods: A New Age is going through the motions, accomplishing the basic level of work required in pulling off a computer-animated feature. It’s a strange way to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, even in a strange year like this. Considering the deal that Universal Pictures – which now distributes DreamWorks Animation films – has struck with major theater chains, this will likely wind up on VOD in about three weeks’ time (and probably, in three months’ time, it’ll be on Peacock). For the desperate, those who just can’t imagine not going to the theater this holiday season, The Croods: A New Age will satisfy the basic need to see something new.
But only truly extraordinary cinema is appropriate to champion at the moment. And this ain’t it.
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