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'The Croods' New Director Infuses Joy Into Family Film

Croods 2 girl best friends
Kimberly Carr - Digital Media Producer

If I had only one word to describe my conversation with Joel Crawford, it would be “joyful.” Joel is making his feature directorial debut with the newly released The Croods: A New Age, and he tackled the project with good humor and contagious enthusiasm. Leslie Mann, who provides the voice for Hope Betterman, said of the experience, “I love Joel’s boundless energy and excitement for the project,” Mann says. “A lot of the time, he read the other parts with me, and he was so funny and he inspired so many new ideas. Joel created a safe space where I could improv and make crazy choices, and I always trusted he would use the best stuff.”

Joel says his faith is key to help shaping his approach to filmmaking, and he obviously leaves a positive impact on his colleagues. A husband and father to three school-age kids, he places his family in the center of his life, and working from home this year during the pandemic has also placed them nearly in the middle of his work. “I can show my kids the movies I work on. They've sat on my chair at home while I'm drawing and they look over my shoulder and they see what I'm working on. I love that I can share it with my family and be influenced by family and put that into the movie.”

Starring the vocal talents of Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catharine Keener, Cloris Leachman, Clark Duke, Leslie Mann, Peter Dinklage, and Kelly Marie Tran, this second chapter of the Croods’s story expands their world beyond simply surviving the wild world, and instead thrusts them into the wide world where the clan is forced to socialize with another family. The idea that “the pack stays together, no matter what,” is challenged as each family member becomes embroiled in their own adventures. But, it was the dynamic between Eep and Dawn which endeared me to the film and led the conversation I had with Joel recently about the film.

There's such a strong theme of “girl power” in the story, but not in a way that disparages men. It’s really uplifting for everyone.

I'm so happy to hear you say that, ‘cause that was the goal. We didn't want to go, like, push an agenda, push this girl power kind of thing. However, the story is under the big umbrella of love, friendship, unity. And so throughout it, we explore. There's a romantic love between guy and Eve, but there's sisterhood, there's brotherhood. There's every kind of aspect of unity. For me, especially having young daughters – specifically when we came on three years ago, we looked at the script and we said, “We want to make a purposeful choice that we're not going to do the cattiness between Eve and Dawn. We're not going to do this jealousy kind of trope where girls are hanging out jealous of each other or talking about a boy.” There's so much more to girls’ friendships than that.

And so we were like, well, if there's, if it's Eep and Dawn and there's no other teenagers in the world, they come across each other and immediately they're celebrating, ‘I have a best friend!’ What’s also fun is that Emma Stone and Kelly Marie Tran are hilarious. Our whole cast is hilarious. And what was fun is not just going in a classic way, where the guys are the comedy and the females are more straightforward. Everybody's flawed. Everybody has quirks. And there's so much comedy that comes from the women's story.

Leslie Mann (who voices Hope Betterman) said that you allowed her to be open and crazy. And Ryan Reynolds said the same thing. They just loved working with you! How do you approach directing actors in vocal roles?

Here’s the thing – I love the play. You've got these amazingly talented actors and they're so gracious and they come in and they read the lines exactly how I wanted or what I was picturing. But then I also go, ‘It's a waste if we don't see where this can go. Let's break the scene.’ And so I think for me, like, yeah, seeing Ryan Reynolds go, ‘We’ve got a joke here. Let's go for it!’ Or Nic Cage, he taps into these references of past cinema influences. You'll never regret trying something out. We can always pull back.

Speaking of trying something out, this is your first full length film. You had the Trolls Christmas special, and have worked as a storyboard artist on other projects. How did you know that it was time to direct?

I love stories about family. Personally felt like this is the right one to take my shot on. It's great being a storyboard artist in animation. You're kind of doing the comic book version of a scene and you learn about story structure. You’re learning about dialogue, you're learning about camera placement, all of these things in kind of bite-sized form. The longer you do it, you take on more and more. I was head of story on Trolls, which [means] you're overseeing the story underneath the directors. So it felt natural to take on more and more. And this was the organic next step in terms of the project. I'm such a huge fan of the first Croods and I love Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco. I feel the pressure, but I also feel the excitement. I love this world, and I want to continue telling their story.

The first installment of The Croods came out in 2013, so it’s been a few years, but did you feel any pressure to recreate the glory of the first one?

Absolutely. The first one has very important themes. It's a wonderful father-daughter story. The world is amazing and the characters are so well-rounded. For me, the important thing was to make sure after seven years people watch Croods: a New Age and feel like it's the same family and you're continuing the journey with them. I was asking myself, ‘What's the tone that I want people to feel when they watch this movie?’ There's a temptation in sequels to make it more dramatic and darker. But for me, I was like, ‘This should feel like a celebration that the Croods are back and should have this feeling of joy throughout.’ Especially bumping into other humans – human flaws are funny!

You said the word “joy.” Marjorie Cohn, President of DreamWorks Animation, said that you and producer Mark Swift “consistently leaned into a joyful tone. It is filled with joy because it was made with joy.”

(humbly laughing) Well, I mean, here's the thing – these movies take three years. I go, ‘Which kid did I have during that movie?’ When I look back at like my history of work, they are like little time capsules. So it's important to me to not make a movie, but the experience of making the movie with an amazing team. We constantly laugh in the room together. And that's the thing I love about making a comedy. I can take jokes and things that have come up in meetings and put that in the movie or inspire things. And so in a weird way, the audience can almost feel the experience that we had making this.

Most of this was done before the pandemic, right? What was it like finishing the film this year?

About half of the movie was finished when we hit the pandemic. In animation, you bring the actors in every few months and cause we try stuff. We rewrite, we bring them back in, keep some of it, we rewrite new stuff. And so we had about half the movie animated, but really when we hit lockdown, we had to figure out how to finish this movie from home and it not look like a pandemic movie! And what’s been awesome is the amazing team at DreamWorks – technically and creatively have kept the highest quality.

I came in just a few months ago to actually see it on a big screen, because I've been watching it on a small screen at home and it blew me away. It looked even more amazing than I had pictured. I do hope people can see this movie however they can, but in a theater is a great experience.

The most important review that you can get for a film is from your family. So what do they have to say?

You know what, it's fun when I hear the kids kind of quoting things from the movie. My 12-year-old son, when I started this, he challenged me! He was like, ‘Dad, you're not gonna make me laugh. You're making a comedy. Huh? Oh, I'm not going to laugh.’ And I can say we successfully got him, he cracked up at moments.

Bonus Question: What is your favorite wild animal from the movie?

I love the wolf spiders. 'Cause they're this weird mix of spiders and almost like Huskies. At home we have a mini American Eskimo Husky. She's this little white dog that thinks she's a Wolf, but she's just puny. I love animals!

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