Cast: (voiced by) Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall
Director: Nick Park
Writers: Mark Burton, James Higginson
It has been a decade since the release of A Matter of Loaf and Death, Nick Park’s previous directorial work. A year later Disney produced The Princess and the Frog, which failed to secure a sizeable return, leading the animation giant to all but abandon hand-drawn animation as a format and instead focus on creating CGI features like those of Pixar. Such is the nature of the technology-dependent industry of cinema where the old, laborious, time-consuming methods are being left behind for the ease and convenience of the modern digital age. Aardman Animation now remains as one of the few leading producers of mainstream animation to keep one of the old practices alive, that being stop-motion. It is a meticulous, painstaking style of filmmaking where an efficient, productive week by a sizeable, multi-skilled team will result in about four or five seconds of filmed footage. At that rate, one might ask whether stop-motion is even worth it. Enter Early Man, an underdog story about a small community fighting against a new age of technology in order to preserve the ways of the past.
Early Man is set in the Stone Age where a young caveman named Dug lives in a peaceful valley with his rabbit hunting tribe. Bobnar, the chief of a tribe, is a cautious, passive sort who is perfectly content not venturing beyond their own territory or hunting any larger game, whereas Dug is keen to try new things and take a few risks. Their docile lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival Lord Nooth and his Bronze Age army (complete the bronze-clad mammoths). They seize the valley for themselves and exiles Dug and his people into the volcanic badlands. Dug finds his way to Nooth’s city and there learns about the ancient, celebrated ritual of football. Standing in the middle of the stadium with the entire crowd watching, Dug challenges Nooth and his elite team to a football match for the return of his home. Nooth accepts, trusting that Dug and his tribe will prove too inept and dim-witted to prevail. This proves to be exactly the case until Goona, a resident of the Bronze city whose gender excludes her from being allowed to play football despite her clear talent, steps in to help them.
Much like Monsters University, which had an entire extraordinary world at its disposal and squandered it in order to make an 80s college movie, Early Man neglects to explore its own world of possibilities in order to make a British sports comedy. From the opening scene we are introduced to a land of volcanoes, dinosaurs, and prehistoric tribes of differing technology, and yet all it leads up to is a formulaic football match with a few jokes and a foregone conclusion. From the second act onwards the movie devolves into training sequences as Dug and his clan attempt to work out the ins and outs of football with the occasional aside to check in Nooth as he makes his preparations for the climatic game, and at some point the Stone Age setting just felt superfluous. It allows for a few clever visual gags, but this is ultimately a story that could have been told at any time which is why it feels like such a wasted opportunity. The film simply follows the typical beats that generic sports movies tend to follow and the characters you follow along the way just aren’t compelling or charming enough to carry it.
Beyond being an underdog sports movie though, Early Man is first and foremost a children’s comedy and it is one that is not at all embarrassed to be childish and silly. Your enjoyment of the film will therefore depend on whether you’re into that kind of humour. Jokes include animals being used a substitutes for modern-day inventions a la The Flintstones (baby crocodiles as clothes pin, a scarab beetle as a beard trimmer, an actual zebra as a zebra crossing, that kind of thing) and endless wordplay like Nooth ordering his soldiers to “start mining ore”, only for one of them to reply “or what?” For the most part the comedy didn’t really do it for me. I did smile at a few bits like a peasant woman exclaiming sliced bread to be “the best thing since… well, ever” and Bobnar declaring himself too elderly to play football at the old age of 32, but I found most of the jokes to be rather predictable and familiar and never found myself enraptured by the novelty of it all. Still it isn’t really the film’s fault, none of the humour is lazy, witless, or forced, you’re just either into it or you’re not. Still, some things did grow on me like the recurring gag about the message bird and Hiddleston’s unyielding commitment to a French accent worthy of a Monty Python character, but then there are all the football related jokes which aren’t especially funny if you’re not a fan of football.
Early Man is one of those movies where you can take it or leave it. Anybody who watches the trailer will know instinctively whether this film is for them or not, and I for my part wasn’t very optimistic (even with the mind behind Wallace & Gromit attached). Having said that, it is film that clearly took a lot of care and effort to make. The craft and attention to detail that went into the creation of the sets and models is to be applauded and the movie incorporates so much movement and visual comedy, from the elaborate to the blink-and-you-miss-it, that I cannot even imagine how many man hours went into putting it all together. I do wish they’d dedicated that effort towards a more worthwhile story, but I’ll take sincerity and care for one’s work where I can get it. Stop-motion is such a laborious process, it’s pretty much a guarantee that any movie that follows it all the way through will be a labour of love. Early Man pales in comparison to Aardman Animation’s greatest achievements, but it’s fun and harmless enough for kids and it at least tries to offer them something inventive and creative even if it doesn’t fully deliver.