By Jacob Sahms
The Croods: A New Age director Joel Crawford may not be a name you know yet, but one day, his digital creations and his stories will be the ones that animation fans go seeking. He’s worked at Universal Pictures since 2006, with story artist credits on the Kung Fu Panda trilogy, Rise of the Guardians, and The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, head of story credits on Trolls, and director credits on the television special Trolls Holiday. Now, he’s sliding over into the film director’s seat of the sequel to the 2013 box office hit The Croods.
Crawford readily explains the process of making an animated film, broken up over three or four years. “In live-action, you have the script, the actors, the set, everyone together on the shoot. What we’re doing is creating everything from scratch over three to four years. One of the jobs is to storyboard the movie. Once you have the script, how do you visualize it? What does the movie feel like? That was my job for a really long time. It’s like the comic book stage of the movie, drawing the characters by hand, and then asking, What’s the story point? Where’s the camera angle? What are the tone of things, sequence by sequence?”
In his directorial debut, Crawford storyboarded sequences in the first year, but by the end, he was overseeing CGI, animation, lighting, the works. More than three hundred people worked on this film, that speaks to the Crood family venturing out and meeting another family, the Bettermans. While Nic Cage’s Grug Crood oversees his clan (Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Randy Thom, and Cloris Leachman), he’s threatened by his daughter’s growing interest in Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who they discover has ties to the Bettermans. The Bettermans are more sophisticated, led by Phil (Peter Dinklage) and Hope (Leslie Mann), who also have a teenage daughter. Together, the two families will have to figure out what it means to be human, and what real community looks like.
“When we started three years ago, we knew we wanted to celebrate humans coming together,” explained Crawford. “Some themes have become even more timely.”
“One of the first paintings our production designer did because it’s the Croods who sleep in a giant pile for warmth and they’re in this harsh environment but it looks like the warmth is generated by this family. That’s the nugget of the idea: this family has a tight bond and nothing else but each other, and then you meet another family who looks like they have everything, they’ve walled in themselves, they live in paradise, they live in a treehouse that has walls within walls, but in doing so and embracing modern comforts they’ve lost the family connection with each other. That was at the core of where we started three years ago, but obviously connection and disconnection between humans has become even more relevant in 2020.”
Still, don’t watch The Croods: A New Age expecting a big bad guy or girl. Crawford and writers Kevin and Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan wanted to show conflict without showing negativity. “We wanted every character to come from a positive point of view that could be doing the wrong things. The parents are doing the best they can; the kids want independence and experiencing that. Everyone is making the best decision they can, even if it’s flawed.”
“So often we fall into, especially in fictional stories, here’s ultra evil and here’s the hero. I don’t agree with it but I can see why the Bettermans are making the decisions they are. I think if you’re going to tell a story with both people deciding to start a neighborhood together because they’re both better for it, then no one can be straight evil. I think that’s the reality of the world.”
Crawford went on to share how the environment around the humans and the animals who live there reflect the human stories. He says snap judgments are made about people, and sometimes even animals, but when you get to know them, you realize who they really are. For example, the director says, “You see these wolf spiders, scary spiders, and they turn out to almost be a pack of dogs but a family. If you look beyond your first assumption, there’s much more beauty.”
For the guy who loved Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for its creativity, its tone, and its story, Crawford has worked hard with his team to make the film a magical experience. Now fans can have a great escape this Thanksgiving, diving into the film’s lavish colors and communal lessons, easily transporting themselves back to the present where all the same lessons still apply.
The Croods: A New Age debuts on November 25.