Dir. Nick Park
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade, Johnny Vegas, Mark Williams, and Rob Brydon.
Aardman are something of a British institution. Doing for stop-motion what Pixar does for CG animation, with Director Nick Park acting as their main driving force. Having created and directed the iconic Wallace and Gromit, and had a huge hit with Chicken Run, Early Man marks the first directorial effort for Park in 10 years. This time the scale is much larger, as Park looks past a modern day fictionalised England, and heads all the way back to a pre-historic fictional England.
Early Man is the story of Dug and his tribe. A stone-age group of cavemen who spend their lives hunting rabbit in the valley, a crater of greenery in the middle of the badlands, a desolate wasteland filled with giant ducks. Dug, voiced by Eddie Redmayne, wants to hunt mammoths instead of rabbits, but Chief Bobnar, Timothy Spall, convinces him that the tribe are happy as they are, and are too hapless to hunt mammoths. This idyllic existence is soon interrupted by the invasion of Lord Nooth, Tom Hiddleston using a wonderfully bad French accent. Nooth is lord over a city already in the Bronze Age, and they use their superior technology to kick Dug’s tribe out of the valley so they can mine it for Bronze. Dug travels to the city where he discovers they worship a sacred game called football, and so he challenges the Bronze Aged champions to a game, waging that if the cavemen win they get the valley back, and if they lose they’ll work down the mine for the rest of their lives. The cavemen have never played football though, so Dug relies on the help of female footballer Goona, voiced by Maisie Williams, another gloriously shoddy French accent, to help them.
Early Man is gorgeous to look at. The amount of detail that goes into creating this stop-motion world is incredible, and truly shows what a labour of love making this film must have been. From a zebra crossing made out of a flattened zebra, to in match instant replays acted out by puppets, the world is ingeniously conceived. The art form is also mined for some great comedy too. Opening with an erupting volcano with a title card that informs us this is near Manchester, or a perspective gag with a duck. Park seemingly uses every film technique known in the first half an hour, demonstrating a true mastery of his craft.
The film is also consistently funny. Whether it’s a visual gag, or a one liner. It has a lot of great moments. Lord Nooth receiving a bird message is fantastic, and the training montage which takes place in the One Million Years B.C. inspired badlands is a great deal of fun. This isn’t the only cinematic reference, as the film is littered with in-jokes for cinephiles. It does come with the obligatory kids film messages of being yourself, aim high, and believe in your family, but here they do enrich the story, and add to the stakes when Dug has to weigh his dreams against the prospect of his family spending the rest of their lives working in a mine.
It’s a shame then, that Early Man doesn’t hit the same heights as Parks previous efforts. In terms of story-telling, the plot is functional enough, but it doesn’t carry with it the same emotional weight that Pixar films do. It’s a film for kids, that apart from a couple of references to older films will do nothing for the adults. The other problem the film has, is that although the stop-motion is lovely, it’s clear they haven’t quite mastered how to show football being played with it. I also felt that with a relatively short run time of 1 hour 29 minutes, it did begin to drag in the middle.
Early Man is a great film to take your kids to and kill an hour of your day, but it isn’t an instant classic in the way that Wallace and Gromit or Chicken Run were. It does offer more for adults than a Shawn The Sheep movie will, but still lacks the emotional resonance and depth that we expect from a truly great animation. The first half hour is a joy, and the world building is fantastic to behold. It’s a charming movie, but you just wish there was little more beneath the plasticine surface.