Starring (voices): Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams
Director: Nick Park
Running Time: 89 mins
Synopsis: The Stone Age is almost over with only a small band of eccentric cavemen left. Content in their small patch of land they face losing it all when the Bronze Age rudely arrives at their door led by Lord Nooth (Hiddleston). However caveman Dug (Redmayne) will not go down without a fight challenging Nooth and his men to a game of football in order to decide their freedom.
Aardman have always carried with them a certain expectation of just what you’re going to get with each new release, and particularly ones directed by their leader Nick Park (who returns here with his first feature since the 2008 Wallace and Gromit special). Of course you can be prepared for those painstakingly detailed claymation visuals, a gentle lightheartedness wherein plot machinations are kept remarkably simple, warm characters with delicately designed personalities and that comedic wit driven home in ceaseless usually genius puns. Now Early Man has some of these aspects but suffers in the main from a simplistic (even for them) storyline populated by remarkably thin characters.
Set thousands of years ago, caveman and dinosaur live side by side before the arrival of that pesky asteroid strangely wipes just the dinos out leaving the cavemen to discover the game of football using the charred up remains of said comet (don’t ask!) It is a lovingly witty opening, taking such a large and defining event but skewering it through that low-key none more British sense of humour. Alas through the years the love of sport has died off, as have the cavemen, leaving but a small patch of land wherein resides Dug and his eccentric family. A collection of oddballs, one has a girlfriend who just so happens to be an inanimate rock, whom spend their days hunting rabbits with barely a thought about the bigger world. Even Dug, our hero, dreams of nothing more than the chance to hunt something bigger. Aardman are usually the kings of constructing interesting off-kilter peripheral characters, good with a one liner or humorous personality trait. But this time they all feel just a little bit staid and broad. We have the stupid one (voiced by Johnny Vegas, who else), the clingy one, the brash one and of course the wise elder leader (adeptly voiced by Timothy Spall). You can’t help but like them even whilst none particularly stick in the mind.
This is especially troubling when even the central hero, Dug, makes little impact. Despite energetic voice work from Eddie Redmayne, he is little more than the cliched brave underdog. Out of his depth but persistently determined. There is none of the shrewd characterisation that gave Wallace and Gromit its heft. Although their gift for cheeky anthropomorphised animals is present and correct. Some life is given in the introduction of Lord Nooth. A pompous poorly French accented Tom Hiddleston (in a good way) smashes into Dug’s home in a quest for metal. You see Nooth represents the incoming Bronze Age, slowly conquering the world with their newfound breakthrough. Much could have been made about the rise of one culture in place of another, and Park has fun juxtaposing the rugged nature of Dug against this technological might, but it rarely catches fire. Dug visits the home of Lord Nooth in a desperate plea to save his people. It is in this setting where that terrific Aardman visual play is in full effect. The screen chock full of clever sight gags that demand repeated viewings (one personal fave is the skinned coat of an actual zebra used as a zebra crossing), and verbally the lines vibe with numerously devilish puns.
Soon Dug finds himself in the midst of the centrepiece of Bronze Age life, mass congregations at the local stadium to watch football. The stadium a dazzingly constructed piece of artistry, so good is Aardman’s work that sometimes you forget that this is all handcrafted and painstakingly put together. Throughout that loving attention to detail keeps you involved when the story tries hard to push you away. Sculpted with such care, those token glimpses of thumb prints in the figures are present and correct. Stop-motion never failing to fascinate me no matter how many times I see it (remember it takes 1000s of man hours to construct just 2 seconds of footage). It certainly helps to mask the sheer familiarity of the plot. After challenging Nooth’s highly skilled football champions to a match whereby they could win their land back or if they lose end up working in a mine for life, Dug’s family must then train to become worthy opponents. In turn giving rise to that ole so cliched moment, the montage. Sporadically funny it may be, and I’m quite partial to a sports montage, sadly it all too often limps along with no sense of engrossing excitement. Struggling along with little in the way of surprises before the inevitable and painfully obvious conclusion. At a scant 89 mins there is a brevity here that works against it rather than for it. Ending so soon after it has started only adding to its forgettable nature.
Production wise nothing can be faulted. Early Man coated in that homegrown charm, and voice work is uniformly brilliant. A bevy of names from the likes of TV, film and theatre show up to breathe some sense of fun into the unsurprising script. Particular praise should go to Hiddleston and Maisie Williams, brazenly confident as a local girl with big dreams, only to be pushed down thanks to some loosely described sexism. Broadly speaking shes a girl, so can’t play football, adept complexity is not on the cards here. It is also nice to see that no matter the loud histrionics and noisy chaos Aardman’s animated competitors seek out, that they are not afraid to keep to those gentle warm-hearted values that so dominated their earlier successes. What Early Man does make evident though is that after all these years evolution is required, a maturity in its storytelling should be pursued. After all, all the loquacious eloquent puns in the world don’t make a heap of difference when you lack investment in the central conceit or its inhabitants. Doing a bad film would not be so bad if it meant they were tackling something new, doing a bland one, however, is just undeserving of the manpower invested to create it.
Verdict: Early Man has all the handcrafted charm, gentle tones and visual playfulness we’ve come to expect from Aardman. Sadly a painfully slight story populated by forgettable characters leaves it feeling largely listless.