By: Trevor Chartrand
Leave it to the British to define the pinnacle moment in human evolution as a soccer (er, ‘football’) game against the French.
In all seriousness, Nick Park (co-director of Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) really kicks it out of the field with Early Man, his first solo project in the director’s chair. Backed by a fun, goofy script, an incredible animation team, and a star-studded cast of talented voice actors, Aardman Animations’ latest release is a solid family film from start to finish.
Set in a prehistoric era, Early Man centres on Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his Neanderthal tribe as they struggle to survive in a lush jungle surrounded by volcanic wasteland. They aren’t the brightest bunch, but they get by just fine until their land is taken by an advanced civilization that’s led by the vile Lord Noorth (Tom Hiddleston). When Dug discovers Lord Nooth’s community and their love for football, he challenges their best players to a game in order to get their land back.
If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is – it’s the exact same underdog sports story that’s been told many times before – but this time with an animated, prehistoric twist. It may sound stale, but there’s plenty of self-awareness here to keep Early Man fresh and funny for older viewers. The film treats genre tropes in the same way Dreamworks’ Shrek mocked fairy tales (while at the same time being a fairy tale itself). All the elements of a typical sports film are here, from training montages to biased referees, but there’s enough self-mockery that the familiar structure doesn’t overstay its welcome – too much. The story is simple enough for kids to follow, and fresh enough for parents to enjoy alongside the younger ones.
Having said that, the film does steep itself a bit too much in the ‘excessive slapstick’ department, including a sequence where a character falls down the stairs for what feels like a solid five minutes. Even the young kids at my screening had stopped laughing long before the joke was over. This is only a minor point in an otherwise very funny film though – not every joke can land with everyone, I suppose. Unfortunately Early Man’s ‘character falling down’ gags reduced the impact of some of the film’s wittier lines.
Despite the stellar cast that includes Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams and The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade, the characters in Early Man are a tad primitive, and not in a good way. With a few exceptions, the voices all tend to blend together, especially since each character has the same monosyllabic caveman range. Other than Dug, Chief (Timothy Spall), Goona (Williams), and Lord Nooth, each character is given one shallow personality trait to define them. Outside of their one quirk, they all speak with the same voice, with interchangeable dialogue that could easily be spoken by any of the supporting characters. I may just be bitter though, because my favorite characters Barry (Mark Williams) and Mr. Rock don’t get nearly enough screen time. I reckon there’s a whole other story we’re missing out on with Barry; the fashion-savvy caveman who wears blue and pink polka-dot firs with his imaginary friend – a rock with a face painted on it.
The animation and visual style of Early Man is reminiscent of Aardman Animations’ typical high standards, utilizing the same character designs and expressions we’ve been seeing since Chicken Run. The animations are layered with plenty of subtle sight gags in the background of the film’s crowd scenes. The attention to detail is impressive, and it’s great to see practical claymation still being used in the digital world. It’s fitting thematically as well, with the ‘ancient’ animation techniques obviously reflecting on the film’s setting itself.
However, because this film looks so similar to Chicken Run and Were-Rabbit, it’s clear these filmmakers haven’t developed their style very much over the years. On the one hand, Aardman Animations’ trademark character designs are essential for brand recognition, but I’d be intrigued to see just what these skilled animators could come up with if they were to push the envelope a little and try something new.
Despite this, Early Man is a cute and highly entertaining family adventure film driven by an evenly paced, tight script. Having sports expertise isn’t necessary for viewing, but an off-beat sense of humour is an absolute requirement. There’s plenty of amusement for the whole family with this memorable, if simple, animated story.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor