Any time Aardman animation releases a new project is a cause for celebration. The studio that created Wallace And Gromit, Shaun The Sheep, and Chicken Run takes their time between projects. Not due to laziness of course. Nope, more due to the fact that the meticulous nature of their hand-crafted animation takes years to achieve, even if their projects are designed to be fleeting blasts of pure candy-coated entertainment. They are like a British Pixar, animation geniuses who sneak rather wonderful and sophisticated storytelling in amongst their loving ludicrous jokes and plasticine fantasies. Early Man was a particularly exciting proposition as it returned Pixar co-founder Nick Park to the director’s chair for the first time since his damn delightful Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. Sadly, Early Man falls a few steps behind that cult classic, but the caveman comedy still proves that Park and co. know what they are doing.
Things open is with a bizarro prologue in which dinosaurs and cavemen share space in prehistoric Manchester (yep, that title is a double entendre) and soccer is invented one the cavepeople start kicking about a searing rock ball fired out of a volcano. The movie then jumps ahead to a new generation of cavefolks living in a charming valley. They are mostly stupid, but youngster Dug (voiced by Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne) wants more (as is the way in most family features). He gets his wish, just not in any way that he bargained for. You see, it turns out Redmayne’s tribe actually lives in the Bronze Ages. They learn that suddenly when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) shows up and boots them out of the valley they call home to mine for bronze. Dug rallies his troops to fight back. A war wouldn’t work out for anyone though, so Nooth insists the fate of the valley be decided by a soccer match. He’s got a superstar collection of players at his disposal, while Dug and his people have never played before. However, there was that prologue about cavemen inventing the sport. So who knows!
First the good news, the movie looks absolutely gorgeous and contains plenty of belly laughs. Nick Park did found the Aardman house style of animation after all. He knows how to make magic out of plasticine like few others. So every character is so delightfully crafted to deliver a full arc without any words coming out of their mouths. The cast is a murderers row of cult British comedians like Richard Ayoade and Rob Brydon backing up the pretty great Redmayne and Hiddleston duo, so all the lines of dialogue are elevated when any of the lovable lumps of clay open their mouths. The prehistoric designs are enveloping, while still cartoonishly exaggerated enough to dance off the screen. The humour ranges from clever observations and obscure cultural references to irreverent slapstick and bad puns. It doesn’t all stick but the good stuff like a “terrifying” prehistoric duck and Flintstones gags like a puppet-based instant-reply system will get theatres rollicking.
The problem comes down to the sports movie half of this caveman comedy/underdog soccer story mash up. Aardman movies typically do far better oversees than in North America, so it’s not uncommon for them to not even consider North American sensibilities. Basing half of this movie on a big soccer match? Yep, that’s a primary example. It’s not hugely exciting or entertaining for those who aren’t already fans of the sport (aka everyone in the world who isn’t in North America) and it’s sad to watch such an irreverent and clever flick devolve into a series of sports movie clichés. Granted those clichés are all delivered with quite a few tongues jammed in cheeks, but they are clichés nonetheless.
Thankfully, the good far outweighs the bad in Early Man. Sure the humour is far more hit and miss than Aardman’s best efforts and the soccer climax is a bit of a letdown. However, the animation is so gorgeous, the voice cast is so perfect, the world so lovingly crafted, and the jokes that do work are so hilarious that Early Man remains a perfect matinee flick for families or sneaky outing for animation buffs. No one does it like Aardman and even when the studio isn’t at their best, they are better than almost anyone else in the game. Also, A+ warthog jokes.
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!
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