2013's The Croods is a pretty comfortably average effort from DreamWorks Animation, with  the rather serious caveat that DreamWorks' average is low enough that this is neither an impressive nor a promising bar to clear. So the existence of a seven-years-later sequel is certainly not the kind of thing that fills a body with optimism, except in that they have been seven transformative years for the studio: more interested in style, in weird storytelling choices, in finding ways other than sheer brute-force rendering power to make their films look creative and interesting. And thus it is that The Croods: A New Age isn't merely a remarkable improvement over its predecessor, it's a genuinely fun, visually dazzling example of goofy cartoon slapstick on a grand scale; among the most purely, weightlessly enjoyable films DreamWorks has ever put out, I would even say.

Whether there's any actual reason for this is impossible to say, but I'm willing to make some reckless suggestions. The DreamWorks of 2020 is not the DreamWorks of 2013, first off; something very important happened to the studio between Home in 2015 and Kung Fu Panda 3 in 2016. This was the window during which DWA came very close to not existing at all - Home could easily have bankrupted the studio, and some people (including myself), were predicting it to do precisely that - and, related, the period where it started looking at different ways of ordering its finances (Kung Fu Panda 3 was the first of the studio's Chinese co-productions). One strand of this new way of doing things was to start reducing budgets, and in a sense, stop trying to compete with Pixar and Disney for "best-rendered", and start looking at ways of playing around with style. This resulted, among other things, in the only sustained run of animated movies by a major American animation studio in the 2010s that I find all that interesting, (KFP3 - Trolls - The Boss Baby - Captain Underpants - How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World),* and The Croods: A New Age is in some ways the beneficiary of that. It cost less than half of The Croods, even with seven years of inflation, and that lower price tag has apparently come attached with much less concern about whatever the hell the movie is doing - if the first Croods was a little odd, A New Age is altogether daffy, visually and narratively. It's frankly a bit of a gaudy, excessive movie, and thus fulfills the promise of its predecessor, which had quite possibly the most interesting design of any DreamWorks movie made up to that point, but didn't really know what to do with it. A New Age has even funkier design, and is absolutely certain what to do with it.

"What to do with it", for the record, is to take the very reasonable step of transforming it into full absurdism and ludicrous slapstick comedy. There's a pretty by-the-books story here: following the events of the first movie (quickly summarised at the start), teenage cavegirl Eep (Emma Stone) and Cro-Magnon dreamboat Guy (Ryan Reynolds), have fallen pretty hard in love, and they're thinking the time might be right to split off from her family and form their own tribe (if you're presently thinking, as I did for a good minute, "but surely Neanderthals formed multigenerational clans, not nuclear families", you are definitely not in the right headspace for The Croods: A New Age). This is absolutely not okay with paterfamilias Grug (Nicholas Cage), who is obsessed with the idea that there is strength in unity, above and beyond the ordinary "daddy won't let his daughter grow up" thing. Soon enough, this won't matter: the Croods stumble their way into a verdant valley, where they meet the Bettermans, Phil (Peter Dinklage) and Hope (Leslie Mann) and Guy-aged daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran), and they happen to be exactly the people with whom Guy's family lived, before his parents drowned in a tarpit. An event we see dramatised, by the way. In a funny way. So that's where the film's priorities lie.

Anyway, since that happened, the Bettermans have single-handedly invented agriculture, as well as houses, elevators, flush toilets, and several other things, and thus we get all the different pieces of a multi-pronged central conflict, most of it pivoting over Grug and Phil's mutual desire to have Guy pair off with Dawn, something neither of the kids actually want. In the course of resolving this, both fathers will learn to be less controlling assholes, among other lessons learned. A New Age burns though teaching lessons at a pretty heightened clip, in fact, possibly because it doesn't seem to care about them all that much except as a pretext.

Instead, what it cares about is the sheer ridiculous energy of its jokes, which range from a paleolithic form of TV addiction to a race of monkeys that communicate through physical violence, and Guy's irritated acquiescence to serving as a bruised and bloodied translator (Reynold's vocal performance is particular strong in this sequence). Some of it is just about coming up with a whole bunch of highly improbable preshistoric flora and fauna, and coloring them in the shiniest day-glo hues that DreamWorks's computers are capable of. Or, in what I think is plainly the film's highlight, indulging in a neon-tinged girl power showdown, with every new shot a cross between a metal album cover and the opening credits to an '80s TV cartoon series.

The guiding principle for first-time feature director Joel Crawford (a former story artist, which I think might explain a little of what the hell is going on here; it means that his job was, in part, coming up with punchy visuals to illustrate individual gags) and his team seems have been, in other words, that the most important thing is keeping the energy cranked all the way up and making sure the jokes are as frequent and bizarre as possible. The story is treated sincerely, and all, and the voice actors (who are all generally quite strong, with Tran, Stone, and Cloris Leachman,as a cantankerous grandma, coming off the best on account of having the best material to play with) are certainly taking their characters' emotions seriously, but there's not really any feeling that A New Age was meant to give us a robust narrative experience; if anything, the script's reliance on boilerplate seems to about excusing us from having to pay too much attention to what's going on. This is a film that delights in the creative nonsense of the moment, in the fashsion of the playfully anarchic tone of a Warner Bros. short cartoon from the 1940s. As long as we get one brightly-lit, luridly-colored visual joke per narrative beat, the actual content of those narrative beats doesn't seem to matter. Or to put it another way: the film obviously cares more that it has a race of monkeys who communicate by punching Ryan Reynolds than it cares about what those monkeys have to say.

One probably wouldn't do too well with a steady diet of this kind of thing, but as presented here, it's pretty addictive, and despite the film's low-ish budget, it looks great; the characters, and the rest of the production design, look so much better with a film willing to go with smooth, plasticky colors than they did in the first Croods, which was trying to keep one foot in realistic lighting and texturing. Besides, it's just goofy; on paper, all of the anachronism-based humor ought to have the calculated smugness of so many bad DreamWorks comedies, but in practice, it's presented with such sugar-high pacing and lightweight silliness that it never remotely feels like it's trying to be clever, just fun. It's unquestionably a frivolous bauble, wildly self-indulgent and completely unnecessary, but what can I say? I had a really good time, and that doesn't happen nearly enough with American CG -animated features.

*Laika isn't "major", as much I'm sure we all wish otherwise.