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The Croods: A New Age director talks primeval beasts and how you yabba dabba don't just copy The Flintstones

By Josh Weiss
The Croods: A New Age

WILMAAAAA! Did that rouse you from your cave-like slumber? Good. It's time to talk about The Croods. After a seven-year hiatus, DreamWorks Animation's Cro-Magnon family is returning to the big screen with The Croods A New Age. The animated sequel, which opens in theaters next week, was helmed by Joel Crawford (a longtime member of the studio's art department) in his directorial debut. Working from a screenplay by Kevin and Dan Hageman (the writing duo of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) and Paul Fisher and Bob Logan (writers of The Lego Ninjago Movie), Crawford set out to expand upon the prehistoric world established by the first movie's co-directors: Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders.

After surviving an extinction-level event last time around, the Croods are no longer cave-dwellers, but intrepid nomads of a primeval landscape inhabited by a menagerie of strange creatures (be careful where you tread: Some of these beasts pack a bit of a punch). They've got a pretty good thing going... except that young lovebirds, Eep (Emma Stone) and Guy (Ryan Reynolds), are thinking about starting a new life together — something that overprotective "I hate change" dad Grug (Nicolas Cage) cannot abide. Things only get worse when the titular family meets the Bettermans, who are literally your "modern Stone Age family." Phil (Peter Dinklage), Hope (Leslie Mann), and Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran) are a little further along on the evolutionary spectrum and have conceived of modern creature comforts like sandals, windows, and the all-important man bun.

What follows is a Montague & Capulets-type situation as the two primordial clans ignite a feud over what's best for Guy's future. At the same time, Eep introduces her newfound gal pal Dawn — who's lived her life in a gated community of sorts — to the thrilling dangers of the outside world. Along with Stone, Reynolds, and Cage, Catherine Keener ("Ugga"), Clark Duke ("Thunk"), and the great Cloris Leachman ("Gran") return to voice the rest of the Crood crew. 

Before The Croods: A New Age crawls out of the antediluvian ooze and onto dry land for the first time, SYFY WIRE decided to catch up with Crawford on a Zoom call (marvel at our modern devices, cave people!) and grill him about the upcoming sequel.

What was the philosophy going into the sequel, now that the world and characters are established?

It’s tricky taking on a sequel. By nature of a sequel, you’ve already told the biggest, most important story on the first of the franchise. You have to make sure the sequel feels like you justify this next big event in these characters’ lives. For me, the entry point was approaching this movie as a fan. Although I was working on other DreamWorks projects at the time, side-by-side with these filmmakers, I didn’t work on the first movie.

There’s so much I love about the first one that I wanted to make sure that everything I loved was brought back. And then I also brought my own voice and vision to this sequel. What was great [when it came to] bridging that gap was Chris Sanders. Although he had stepped away from the studio to work on other projects, he came in and gave me feedback on the script, gave me insights into things they had tried, so it was a nice handoff to get me going on Croods: A New Age.

Like you said, the first movie told this big story and neatly wrapped up all the arcs, especially for Grug. How did you find another story that was not only worth telling, but one that would also help these characters grow?

I think it comes from an honesty of character. We talked about [the fact] that Grug goes through this change in the first one of overcoming fear and embracing the new. But then going to the honesty of [how that] change is still hard for Grug. He’s accepted Guy into the pack, but he’s not ready for Guy and Eep to leave the pack, which is the next step.

I think the word "change" is so important, where it’s making sure every character in The Croods experiences something that challenges their worldview and causes some form of change — whether it's Eep and Guy finding out what real love is and getting out of puppy love, or Grug being ready to let his daughter go, or Thunk discovering technology in a window.

I love all the prehistoric and hybrid beasts that live in this heightened, primeval world. Can you talk a little bit about how you come up with ideas for new creatures?

I think there’s two parts to that answer. The Croods’ world is crazy and fantastical and I wanted everything to mean something thematically. As an example, in the first movie, the world is pulling itself apart and Grug is trying to keep his family together. And so, I loved how thematically The Croods’ crazy world was reinforcing the theme. On this one, our goal was: "This is a story about two very different families who see each other’s differences. They kind of make judgments at first, but if you look deeper, it’s more than what meets the eye."

That was our guideline for Croods creatures. From there, I handed it to the production designers and [said], "Pitch crazy stuff." Things like wolf spiders that, at first glance, look like a horrifying giant spider, but upon further inspection, they’re these endearing, sweet, pack-like [creatures] — almost like dogs. Or the butterfly forest, which just looks like a beautiful forest, but as you get closer, there are prehistoric butterflies that lift off.

That would not only reinforce the theme but also surprise the audience, who’s been along the journey from Croods 1 to Croods 2.

I've got my Flintstones T-shirt on right now, so I've gotta ask. That series is kind of the pop culture baseline for any cartoon set during the Stone Age. Did you find yourselves harkening back to the Hanna-Barbera era of animation while making A New Age?

It’s interesting that you bring that up because it might be something you can’t escape. The Flintstones is such a classic and quite an important step in animation. But we definitely were like, "We don’t wanna feel like we’re doing The Flintstones. We want this to be separate." We really tried to tap into making sure the creatures felt like they were a part of the world. I’d say in The Flintstones, the creatures can talk. The record player guy [for instance] goes, "It’s a living!" So, we didn’t go that far, but I think you can’t escape the comparisons.

The Bettermans feel like modern-day hipsters to me. What was the approach for separating them from the Croods?

We wanted to emphasize the Croods as cave people and the Bettermans as a more evolved family. We wanted to make sure they didn’t feel like they were from present day, but that they were just the next step on the evolutionary ladder. However, we wanted people to feel like their characters were people they knew. Like, "Ahh, I know somebody like that. That’s my neighbors. That’s us!"... I think the man bun, when I saw the design and then those pompous forelocks on Phil, I was like, "That guy has a high vision of himself."

The Croods: A New Age

And you're getting to add to the already talented voice cast with Leslie, Peter, and Kelly.

Honestly, I feel like a little kid just playing. Just going, "Wow!" Like you said, the returning cast is amazing and one of our concerns was like, "OK, this family has to stand up to the same acting chops as this amazing cast of the Croods and Ryan Reynolds as Guy." When we cast Leslie Mann as Hope Betterman, Peter Dinklage as Phil Betterman, and Kelly Marie Tran as Dawn, they all brought so much.

I’d say one of the key things I loved tapping into with this is the art of improvisation, which really helped connect the characters and also allowed for this amazing cast to be able to spontaneously throw something in that I can then feed to the other character and have them interact off of. We were really fortunate, where the returning cast and new cast improvised and came up with things that made me cry laughing.

Peter is the standout voice for me, which is really saying something when you've got Nicolas Cage onboard. He really brings so much to Phil. I have to know what those recording sessions were like!

He’s like the sweetest guy and he brings such a presence and a dominance with his voice. I was curious, like "Oh, is he gonna be serious? Is he gonna go for this absurd story and character?" What I love is he not only matched Nicolas Cage, which is quite the feat, but also grounded this character. He would do things and he’s like, "Oh, that reminds me of somebody I know." He really tapped into the "bro talk," where he’d be calling [Grug] "bro." Which I’m so thankful for because that’s what really unlocked the friendship of Grug and Phil — that they can go from foes to bros.

Any other fun behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the recording process?

For me, Nicolas Cage is such a powerhouse of acting performance and he always finds these spontaneous [moments of inspiration]. When Grug sees the banana for the first time, we played this harmonica cue for him that was from Once Upon a Time in the West, just to get the wistful moment that Nic could tap into. But Nic, being such a fan of cinema, he tapped into Henry Fonda. It was amazing to just watch as his demeanor changed for that wistful monologue that Grug does. There were so many moments like that, where you get these surprises that surprised Nic, as well as me, in the moment.

We’ve also got Leslie Mann, who is so funny. She has such great comedic timing and wit. Kelly Marie Tran was amazing at improvising. Ryan Reynolds is a genius and he would never go, "OK, let’s move on." He’d go, "Wait, wait, wait — let’s go back, I think there’s a joke there." He was great at writing in the room as well.

The Croods A New Age

You've also got Cloris Leachman, who I believe is the oldest member of the cast, right?

I think she might be 94 and her comedic timing and feistiness is so perfect for Gran. It is Gran. I’m just blown away... and so glad that we got to be a part of her amazing career. That was the thing, it was so fun tapping into this great backstory for Gran; to continue from the first movie and go, "Oh no, there’s more about her past that you didn’t know!" All around fun.

This is your feature-length debut as a director at DreamWorks. What were some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from the experience?

It can be very daunting... I’m such a fan of the first movie and to go, "OK, I’m taking on the second [one] and I don’t wanna ruin it." For me, there was a lot of pressure to try and figure out the story, the tone, the look of it. One of the early things that I discovered was that I’m not doing it alone and some of the best ideas come from the amazingly talented team around me... What’s great about that is if all the ideas came from me, I wouldn’t be able to see it with fresh eyes. But when somebody interjects something and does something unique and it wasn’t my idea, I get to almost be a fan and go, "Oh! That’s great!" That was really the lesson [of] utilizing the amazing, talented team we have.

The Croods A New Age

Is there talk of a third movie right now? What would you like to see out of another film?

I hope so. I’ve spent three years with these characters and I love them. I love the Croods and I love the fantastical world. I really think they do connect with families universally because there’s just a way in for everybody. There’s a grandparent, there’s parents, there’s kids. But honestly, I think it’s mostly up to the audience to demand a third because yeah, of course, I’d love [another] one! But I don’t know...

That’s the other thing from a creative way in, it would have to be a story that demanded a sequel. Just the same way I approached this one where you go, "That’s a huge life event" and doesn’t just feel like we’re pumping out another one. [We need something] that feels like it justifies it, so right now, I don’t have a specific way in, but I have a passion and excitement for The Croods' world.

Anything to add?

Especially making the movie now in this time, I hope everybody gets to see this movie, whether it’s in the theater or at home. However they can see it because like I mentioned, we’ve really tried to infuse joy and laughter into this movie and I think it’s something we could use today.

The Croods: A New Age opens in theaters Wednesday, Nov. 25.