Producer: Mark Swift   Director: Joel Crawford   Screenplay:  Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan   Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman, Clark Duke, Leslie Mann, Peter Dinklage, Kelly Marie Tran and Kailey Crawford   Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade:  C+

It’s taken seven years for DreamWorks to come up with a sequel to their successful 2013 animated family movie about a prehistoric family forced to seek a safer home, and one would think they’d have been able to come up with something cleverer than “The Croods Meet the Flintstones.”  But that’s essentially what “A New Age” is, though Fred and Wilma don’t actually appear.  (It might be funnier if they did.)

Instead they’re replaced by Phil and Hope Betterman (voiced by Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann), smoother, more evolved types who, along with their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran), have established themselves in an advanced compound in which they live in a beautiful tree house equipped with “modern” conveniences.  Phil has even diverted a mountain water source to make the walled-in refuge a place lush with food-bearing foliage.

The Croods—bumbling patriarch Grug (Nicolas Cage), his colorless wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), her grouchy mother Gran (Cloris Leachman), and their children—smart  Eep (Emma Stone), thick-headed Thunk (Clark Duke) and squealing Sandy (Kailey Crawford)—stumble onto the Betterman homestead, accompanied in their travels by Guy (Ryan Reynolds), the handsome young fellow Eep fell for in the first installment.  It turns out that the Bettermans were neighbors of Guy’s parents, that he and Dawn had once been childhood chums, and that Phil and Hope would like that relationship to blossom into romance now.  There’s an intimation their wish might be fulfilled even as Eep and Dawn become pals, going on girl trips through the gardens. 

Meanwhile Phil persuades Grug, as they lounge in the sauna of his “man cave,” that it’s Grug’s idea that it would be best for everyone if the Croods moved on without Guy.  But before they can depart, Grug realizes he’s been tricked and decides to get back on Phil for his scheming ways by eating the compound’s stores of bananas, thereby breaking the only rule Phil’s imposed on his guests—that they leave the bananas alone.

The reason for the prohibition becomes clear when Phil reveals that the fruit is the means by which his family placates a horrible monster lurking behind the wooden walls that demands bananas as tribute.  (Phil’s meddling with the water flow, it’s explained, has decimated the wider food supply.)  The set-up suggests that the fearsome being will be a King Kong-sized beast, but instead the mysterious enemy turns out to be a tribe of monkeys whose language consists of slaps and punches.  (Tykes in the audience will undoubtedly enjoy their very physical communication with Guy.)

But the human-monkey confrontation pales when it’s revealed that the bananas serve as the monkeys’ sacrifice to—you guessed it—a ravenous Kong type.  When the men folk fall captive to the monster, the women are called on to save the day, organized by Gran into a contingent of the Amazonian “Thunder Sisters” she served with in her prime.  They prove adept at kicking butt, and the movie resolves with the expected salutary messages—family matters, sisterhood is important, brain and brawn must work together for the good of all. 

“A New Age” is nothing if not energetic, with plenty of action to keep younger audiences engaged—lots of encounters with strange creatures and wild rides through the landscape, as well as that final face-off with the giant gorilla, all staged frantically by director Joel Crawford, edited hectically by James Ryan and accompanied by a boisterous score from Mark Mothersbaugh (with some pop tunes inevitably inserted).  The voice work is accomplished, but the level of verbal wit the cast have to work with is modest, and the visual gags provided by the quartet of screenwriters pretty obvious (like Thunk’s obsession with a window as an analogue to a modern couch potato’s devotion to a TV screen).                           

The one outstanding element is visual, with the brightly neon backgrounds featuring an array of lustrous, almost luminous sights.  (The first film was in 3D, but its absence isn’t felt here.)  One has to give production designer Nate Wragg a good deal of the credit, but the army of animators deserves recognition as well. 

Presumably the tykes who responded to “The Croods” back in 2013 will have outgrown their allegiance, but a Netflix spin-off “prequel” series, “Dawn of the Croods,” which ran from 2015 to 2017, kept the brand alive, so there’s a built-in fan base for this continuation.  Beyond them, however, “A New Age” will strike most viewers as one of those middling animated flicks that prize predictability over imagination.  More exhausting than exhilarating, it may satisfy the target audience but like the first installment is no animation classic.