From its earliest days crafting music videos and Oscar-winning shorts, Aardman Animations has been one of the most delightfully consistent players in the field. The stop-motion studio specializes in creating beautifully animated stories that look charmingly homemade, complete with visible fingerprints. When ‘Wallace and Gromit’ creator Nick Park leads the team, the projects are bizarre genre mash-ups like the farm-bound prison escape flick ‘Chicken Run’ or the 1950s monster movie homage ‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’.
Park’s been absent from Aardman’s feature film director slate for years, making ‘Early Man’ an exciting proposition for fans now that the Aardman house genius is back. Unfortunately, the project shows a little rust forming in the filmmaker’s brain following a prolonged absence, but it’s still an offbeat charmer.
The film follows a clan of cavemen living in the prehistoric Manchester. (Yes, the title is a pun. Don’t worry, the jokes get better.) After a joyously bizarre opening involving dinosaurs and a volcano and cavemen inventing soccer with a flaming rock, things settle into to an even sillier story. Our hero is Dug (Eddie Redmayne), a lovable caveman who does the usual caveman things with his intelligence-challenged tribe and his pet pig who is essentially Gromit with big nostrils. (Nick Park provides the grunts himself.) One day, things go all wacky when Dug and friends discover that they’re actually in the Bronze Age and just living like it’s the Stone Age. The evil Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) takes over Dug’s valley to mine for precious bronze. When the suddenly homeless Dug and his tribe try to get back their home, Nooth offers them a deal. They have to beat Nooth’s champion soccer team to reclaim the valley. If they lose, they’ll be forced into a life of bronze mining slavery. Dug takes the deal, even though he’s never played the game before. But remember that prologue where cavemen invented soccer? Perhaps that’ll come back into play.
As far as Aardman’s oddball animated genre mash-ups go, a Stone Age sports movie is a predictably wacky choice, if not a particularly interesting one. In the past, Park has always used the genre trappings of his screenplays to toy with conventions and expectations in playful ways. While there’s some of that here, it’s sad to see ‘Early Man’ slowly devolve into a fairly typical underdog sports movie. Ultimately, there’s only so much even a studio as creative and irreverent as Aardman can do with a sports climax. You know where that’s going. (Will the underdogs somehow triumph?! Hmmmm…) It takes it’s time getting there. Training montages, impossibly talented antagonists, last minute cheating, the works. It’s all there, every cliché of the genre. A few amusing sight gags, such as a puppet theater instant replay, liven things up a bit, but the soccer climax is a real letdown, especially when watching the flick on the one continent that couldn’t care less about soccer.
That’s really too bad. Until ‘Early Man’ devolves into sports movie tedium, Park shows quite a bit of promise with the material. The house style of animation is as gorgeous as always, somehow both professionally elaborate and charmingly hand-crafted in appearance. The characters are all lovable eccentrics, and the voice cast is filled with a murderers’ row of British comedy character actors who elevate their clay dopplegangers. Park may be slightly too in love with puns, but the script he serves up with co-writers Mark Burton and James Higgleson (‘Shaun the Sheep’) is also filled with great sight gags (like how a prehistoric duck marches into frame in unexpected forced perspective) and clever dialogue. It’s such a fun and stylish spin on old ‘Flintstones’ routines that you can’t help but wish Park hadn’t bothered with any of the soccer stuff.
Sadly, he did. Admittedly, with the exception of ‘Chicken Run’, Aardman has essentially accepted that its animated features will make their money absolutely everywhere in the world other than North America. The humor is perhaps just a little too esoteric for this side of the pond and the voice cast is far too British to slip by on name recognition. By focusing ‘Early Man’ on soccer, Park essentially guaranteed that the movie will be the least successful Aardman release in North America to date. That’s really a shame because there was potential here. The world is brilliant and the jokes are strong, but the plot is formulaic. Aardman movies are rarely accused of succumbing to easy storytelling formulas and losing their way, but something went wrong here. While it’s not enough to ruin the movie, it will be enough to ensure that ‘Early Man’ essentially vanishes off screens on this side of the world almost instantly.