“Early Man”: Underdog tale revives classic animation style


“Early Man” is the newest addition to the catalog from Aardman Animation, best known for classics like “Wallace and Gromit,” “Chicken Run” and “Flushed Away.” (Photo courtesy of IMDB)

Gone are the glory days of “Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit” or “Flushed Away,” by Aardman Animation studios.  While the studio continues to have success in its home country of England, generally raking in lots of money and positive reviews, the studio has seen a continual decline in income Stateside.  Their 2012 release, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” made $31 million dollars and in 2015 the “Shaun the Sheep” movie made just $19 million despite a rating of 81 on Metacritic. “Early Man,” the studio’s newest release, brings back studio founder Nick Park as the director for the first time since “Curse of the Wererabbit” in 2005, but the film is not quite good enough to buck the trend.

“Early Man” begins by bringing audiences back to the time of man’s creation, when the only two dinosaurs left on earth (named Ed and Mike) are destroyed by a soccer ball-shaped asteroid.  Luckily, the humans (yes, they were alive during the time of the dinosaurs) survive, and when they find this oddly shaped object from outer space they quickly become fascinated by it.

Thus, the world’s dominating religion is formed: soccer football, of course.  A few ages later, a caveman tribe lead by Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne,) have their routine existence interrupted when people from the bronze age invade their valley to mine for bronze.  The only way Dug can save his home is by training his caveman friends to defeat the current grand champions in the holy game of football.

It is a markedly silly premise, but one that works well for a simple children’s film. Behind the creative guise the ark of the plot is simple, and the characters are as two-dimensional as it gets. It says something that Mr. Rock, a literal talking rock, was probably the third or fourth most interesting character in the movie. Dug’s pet pig Hognob is uninteresting, which is disappointing given the strong characterizations of other animal roles like Gromit the dog and Shaun the sheep in the studio’s past works. Maisie Williams (Aria Stark of “Game of Thrones”) plays the romantic interest, but she gets hardly any development in her small amount of screen time.

The characters are voiced by Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne and Maise Williams. (Photo courtesy of IMDB)

The characters function well in their roles and the villain, Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston in a strange French-German accent) is so cartoonishly evil, but it’s nothing particularly notable and fails to raise the film above average kid material.

Where the film gets most of its brownie points is with its humor. As the film centers around soccer, it does not exactly endear itself to American audiences right off the bat. Several jokes in the film require knowledge of the sport as well as popular European teams and players.

Additionally, the film also doesn’t shy away from a few corny jokes, like a character shouting “duck!” only for everyone to move suddenly to avoid something when of course he was just pointing to a duck (this happens twice).

Still, much of the humor comes from director Park’s zany touch.  It’s not necessarily laugh-out-loud stuff, but it can conjure up a smile when you see store names like “Flynt Eastwood” or “Jurassic Pork.”  Messages in the film’s world are relayed by birds that can perfectly replicate the way the message was originally given, right down to  voice imitations and physical actions; this provides some chuckles.

While it is hit or miss throughout the film, jokes are always at least creative which prevents total boredom. Some of the best moments come toward the end of the film, when the royal commentators are announcing the climactic football/soccer match while lobbing puns at each other.

Even when the jokes are missing, and the characters are uninteresting Aardman’s animation style continues to impress.  It is hard not to marvel at the fact that everything on screen was handmade, save for fires and smoke effects.

The characters, simple as they may be, have an incredibly diverse number of expressions and movements that were each posed by an animator, frame by frame, using replaceable faces, eyes and poseable body parts.  This makes the constant slapstick humor more impressive.  The environments are incredibly detailed with meticulously placed trees, bushes andr weapons.  It is the animation that is ultimately the film’s strongest selling point.

“Early Man” is a kid’s movie through and through, with characters that rely more on stereotypes than actual development as well as a run-of-the-mill underdog tale holding it all together.  That’s not to say it is brainless; even adults can potentially enjoy it for its energetic animation alone.