A Great Kind of Warm Message: Joel Crawford on The Croods: A New Age

“The Croods: A New Age” is the first feature directed by animator and storyboard artist Joel Crawford. The prehistoric family led by Grug (Nicolas Cage) and Ugga (Catherine Keener) finds some other humans, pointedly named The Bettermans (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann). In an interview, Crawford talked about what was most fun, what was most challenging, and what was most important to him in making this film.

You spent three years making this film, so you probably have a good idea of what you would like most about living back then.

What I like about it the best are the animals. The creatures are these weird kinds of hybrids. Chunky, the huge cat is like a saber tooth tiger mixed with a macaw. So yes, I definitely would be trying to ride some cool weird animals.

What was the inspiration for having the family we got to know so well in the first film meet up with people who are so different?

Both of the Crood movies are about change. They’re about the world changing and they’re about family dynamics changing. In the first one the world was ending and they were trying to survive. So, for the second one, what’s the next big change? Well, the world, you know, with innovations, the world starts to change and meeting another family that seems like they figured out the world using their brains and obviously with the name Betterman, and they always say, “emphasis on the better,” you know there is going to be a clash between these cave people and the more evolved family.

It surprised me that it was very even-handed. You really give all sides a lot of credit, except maybe Thunk, the son who can’t tear himself away from the prehistoric version of screens — a window. 

That was one of the big goals. There’s a lot of conflict in this, but we wanted it to all come from a positive place. Both families are doing what they think is best for their family. There are clear differences, but there are pros and cons to each style of living. And at first glance, the Bettermans have figured out the world. They live behind the safety of a wall. They’ve got paradise. They live in an amazing tree house and they cultivate crops so they have plenty of food. They have privacy. The Croods are all sleeping together on a big sleep pile in the middle of the cold desert, but there’s this warmth with the Croods. 

At first glance, it may seem like the Bettermans have it all, but what the Bettermans have lost is this family connection with each other, by building walls in between each other and embracing modern comforts. They’ve lost that tight bond. And that’s something to celebrate that the Croods have, they have nothing but that. And it’s a shared world in the end, which I think is a great message for today. You can’t paint someone with one picture. There’s more than meets the eye when we get to know each other.

As a parent, I was particularly drawn by the theme of trying to protect your kids but still making it possible for them to make mistakes and have adventures. I really loved the way that that was portrayed in the film. Did that come out of your own experience?

Definitely — myself, the writers, the producer all having kids and experiences like that. And I think that was the interesting thing to jump back and forth to different points of view. Grug in the first movie had a hard time accepting Guy into the pack. Now he’s like, well, he is a part of the family, but he’s not ready for the next step in Eep’s and Guy’s relationship where they want to start a home of their own and leave the pack. Those challenges that are a natural part of family dynamics and family changing.

What was your biggest animation or technical challenge?

In each of the shots when every character on the screen, whoever the animator is, he or she has to animate every one of them with the same amount of love. This movie happens to have so many characters that are always on screen so that definitely was a technical challenge. We have some of the best animators in the world, but they put all their love into animating Grug and then okay, now on to Eep, then now onto the Betterman family. And for me, that’s one of the wonderful things. When you watch and re-watch this movie, there are so many details that are all totally on character that it’s so fun to see each of these characters given the same amount of quality throughout.

How did you get started in animation?

I went to school for animation. And then I started at DreamWorks in 2006 as a storyboard artist. Doing storyboards you draw almost the comic book version of a sequence in the movie. That was my start and it was a great training ground, taking each little sequence of the movie. Each scene is like a mini movie of itself where you’re learning about storytelling, about a dialogue, about where you put the camera. And so it was a great training ground and a chance to work with so many different amazing directors. I just tried to sponge everything up until I got this opportunity.

Tell me about working with the voice actors in the film. Were you reading lines with them in the recording booth?

I love to. I think something that’s important when we don’t have the actors to play off each other. I love having someone that reads against them, sometimes it was the head of story on this project and other times it was myself, but we’re in there. I like to improvise a lot too, because especially with animation, it takes three years to make this, so things could easily feel too planned or stale. And that spontaneity that you find in the room, it’s priceless to me. So, I love working that way.

All of them were fantastic at it. Ryan Reynolds is amazing at nailing exactly what you need, but also going, “That’s not good enough. Let’s go again.” He loves to mine and look for extra gems. Emma Stone is so talented and versatile with comedy and drama. But she also is just the sweetest person and just so lovely to work with. Nic Cage would surprise me the most. I loved it because he surprised himself. It wasn’t what I was planning, but it’s exactly what I needed. And the new cast of Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann and Kelly Marie Tran, are on the same level as this amazing returning cast and their ability to improvise — amazing comedic talent. And then Kelly Marie Tran comes from an improv background.

What moment in the film makes you laugh the most?

Kelly Marie Tran did this thing where at the dinner scene when everybody’s letting each other have it and all these secrets come out and Kelly’s character does this thing where she holds up her hand that is swollen. She’s standing up to her mom for the first time and she goes, “I got SCARS!” Oh, I love that so much.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when the two girls meet and become instant best friends.  

That was an important choice for us. We wanted to make sure that these two girls meeting didn’t become the classic trope of romantic triangle, jealousy, and cattiness. That it was a positive thing. The reality is, two teenagers who have come across no other people before will be very happy to meet each other. What’s fun is that positivity actually translates to so much character comedy.  

What do you want families to talk after they watch this movie together?

I hope that families can watch this together and enjoy a big comedy, the ridiculous characters in it. I hope they can laugh together and really feel the sense of joy. But underneath it all is about human beings coming together and dropping their walls between each other and finding a connection. And I think that’s a great kind of warm message to leave families with.

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