7.5 out of 10
Eddie Redmayne as Dug
Tom Hiddleston as Lord Nooth
Maisie Williams as Goona
Nick Park as Hognob
Kayvan Novak as Dino
Timothy Spall as Chief Bobnar
Richard Ayoade as Treebor
Selina Griffiths as Magma
Johnny Vegas as Asbo
Mark Williams as Barry
Gina Yashere as Gravelle
Simon Greenall as Eemak
Rob Brydon as Message Bird
Miriam Margolyes as Queen Oofeefa
Directed by Nick Park
The newest bit of masterful fantasy from Aardman Animation (Shaun the Sheep), writer-director Nick Park’s paean to soccer — pardon me, football — is clever, engaging and warm, making up in charm what it lacks in originality. Like the best Aardman’s work over the years it features clever sight gag after clever sight gag and a few bits of genuine off-the-wall lunacy which will make you question what the people who make these things do on the weekend when no one is looking. And all of it wrapped around a self-effacing Everyman (Redmayne) tackling problems that really are too big for him with plucky can-do-itness in an effort to just enjoy a pleasant life.
Though what exactly a ‘pleasant life’ means during the Paleolithic period is a bit different from what it means now. Rather than a nice garden and bit of cheese, all these Stone Age cave dwellers want is to catch a nice rabbit for dinner and maybe a dance afterward and not much else. The idea of setting their sights higher, like hunting giant wooly mammoths the way Dug wants to, is ridiculous and asking for trouble. Or it was until they discover that rather than living in the Stone Age they actually live in the Bronze Age after a bunch of snooty armored ruffians arrives to kick them out of their valley to mine it for more bronze.
Lacking a lot of the whimsy of Aardman’s best stuff — no wererabbits or robot pants here — Early Man wraps itself up tight in the cliché’s of the sports drama though with plenty of room for visual jokes and even the odd bit of wonder. Though initially offering up a fun and potentially gag filled visit to the Stone Age (which is not coincidentally the home of most of Early Man’s best stuff), Park and company quickly make a hard left turn into sports movie land when Dug visits the home of the Bronze Age people and discovers that they are obsessed with a game where athletic yaboo’s run around kicking a ball past opponents and into a net. A game which Dug himself believes his people invented and which he soon realizes he can use to force the return of their valley if he and his cavemen can just beat the best footballers around in a single winner take all match.
There really are two types of Aardman films. There are the ones which are all about visual splendor and imaginative flights of fancy – where robot dogs can hold an old lady hostage and a bunch of sheep can stand on each other’s shoulders to impersonate a farmer — and the ones which aspire to more typically straightforward family-friendly story telling. The kind where a rooster tries to teach chickens to fly or two rats are chased through a London sewer while dealing with class issues. One of these kinds of films is unquestionably better than the other, reveling in pure imagination of the kind that so many children’s films don’t bother with. The other is more straightforward in its storytelling and mixed in its results; Early Man spends much of time balancing between these two imperatives trying to have it both ways. The result is more good than bad — even in its most straightforward version Aardman can’t entirely cover up the lunacy at its core – but is more of a mixed bag than anything the studio has done since Flushed Away.
Redmayne and the rest of the cast are perfectly serviceable but not a lot is asked of them and few seem to be having real fun beyond Hiddleston’s villainous Lord Nooth, nor is much asked of them. Word play and over the top delivery has never been a big part of Aardman’s bag of tricks. It’s no accident that their best films have been focused on mute characters like Gromit or Shaun the Sheep who are purely visual in their joke telling. Nor is it an accident that the best character in Early Man is the very similar Hobnob, Dug’s porcine companion, and the best joke revolves around a giant man-eating prehistoric duck.
None of that is to say Early Man isn’t fun or worth seeing. When the bar you’re being held to is your earlier near-classics there’s no reason to expect it to be cleared every time. On the other hand, the fact that the core of the actual story is a generic sports one offers little in the way of that fantasy or originality which has been Aardman’s hallmark. Even lacking that though, we’re still left with something fun and lighthearted without the crass commercialism and short-attention span gags that fill stuff like The Smurfs and Despicable Me films. Maybe they’ve passed the innovation crown over to Laika and it’s ilk, and maybe that’s the way it should be, but there are worse problems to have.
Though if you hate soccer you should definitely stay away.