Nick Park’s latest doesn’t entirely re-invent the wheel, but it does remind us that animation can be full of ancient, rustic delights.
Nick Park and Aardman Animation‘s films have always flown in the face of accepted wisdom about modern animation. While other major animation studios make movies with a catch-all appeal, Aardman’s are decidedly provincial pictures, with the UK-based studio championing a particular brand of wry, slapstick-heavy northern English humor across all of its universally-loved creations, from Oscar-winning short Creature Comforts to the Wallace and Gromit series. Aardman isn’t sold on innovating for innovating’s sake, either; while CGI has been used to enhance some of their latest features, the studio has been careful to ensure that its use never detracts from the humble, homely appeal endowed by their use of traditional stop-frame claymation techniques.
Early Man, Aardman’s latest movie (and Park’s first stint as a solo feature director), is made in this same winning mold. As with Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit films, it plays off the everyman, who here takes the form of a young Stone Age man named Dug (endearingly played by Eddie Redmayne). Dug wishes his tribe would hunt mammoth rather than rabbit in the lush valley they live in, but otherwise, he and his little clan are quite contented in their primitiveness. One day, however, the tranquillity of their small patch of Eden is disrupted by a foreboding sound: the clang of stone on bronze (a neat analogy of the film’s central conflict).
That noise is the harbinger of the Bronze Age, and of a civilization led by aristocratic metal maniac Lord Nooth (an unrecognizable Tom Hiddleston doing a comical caricature of a French accent). Nooth loves two things: bronze, and football (or soccer). His first love is what has led him to the valley, which he believes would make a great site for an ore mine. A desperate Dug seizes upon Nooth’s other passion as a means to preserve the peaceful serenity of tribe life, proposing a winner-takes-all match between his un-athletic tribe and Nooth’s top team, the cheekily-titled Real Bronzio. It’s a risky wager: if Dug’s team wins, they get to keep their valley, but if they lose, they’ll be mining the “cold, hard, slippery” stuff Nooth likes to rub against his face forever.
It’s this game that entirely forms the movie’s plot, essentially making Early Man an underdog sports movie. While we do root for Dug and his tribe, however, we aren’t given anything else to care about. And with the outcome of the game being somewhat predictable, it feels like Early Man‘s story would play better as an amusing diversion – a half-time show, perhaps – rather than as the main event itself.
To be sure, though, Early Man is not a total let-down. Visually, it remains as joyously mesmerizing to watch as all the earlier Aardman films are. From the toothy under-bite of protagonist Dug to the primitively jutting jaw of Dug’s loyal warthog Hognob (whose grunts are voiced by Park himself), Early Man’s characters are as endearingly ugly as the studio’s creations always have been. At one point in the film, a “giant, man-eating mallard” turns up, and the sight is as genuinely terrifying as the dumpy friendliness of plasticine allows. In every frame, there’s that ancient appeal of Aardman’s – it’s refreshingly goofy, homely charm – reminding us that animation needn’t be realistically rendered in twelve different dimensions to be good.
Although its narrative feels somewhat one-note, Early Man is bulked up with a wealth of gags and Easter eggs for audiences of all ages, thanks to a collaborative screenwriting effort from Mark Burton, James Higginson, Park and John O’Farrell. For film fans, there are plenty of nods to the movie’s cinematic ancestors: we glimpse a food stall named “Jurassic Pork,” a pots-and-pans shop that trades under the name “Flint Eastwood,” and there are several scenes inspired by both Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and the work of Ray Harryhausen. There’s also a terrific ball-over-the-fence moment that will elicit a chuckle from anyone who’s ever played a ball game before, plus some stellar slapstick stuff that will strike gold (or bronze) with any generation.
Given the centrality of the film’s football theme, however, it’s the UK’s favorite sport that gives Early Man much of its comic force. From the film’s kick-off scene, in which the accidental creation of football is shown as taking place somewhere “near Manchester” – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the northern English city’s passion for the beautiful game – to Nooth’s official title (“your Premiership”), Early Man is full of football-themed gags that will score even amongst those with only a passing knowledge of the sport. For fans in the know, more jokes hit the back of the net thanks to comedian Rob Brydon, who lends his considerable impressionist talents to the movie by lampooning British sports commentating.
The rest of Early Man’s supporting cast is equally brilliant, although the film misses an easy opportunity to enrich itself by granting them a few more lines. Dug’s tribe is a zany, multi-accented coalition made up of the voices of Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade, Mark Williams, Johnny Vegas and Gina Yashere, while the always excellent Miriam Margolyes gives shrill vocalization to Queen Oofeefa, the sovereign ruler of the Bronze civilization. Maisie Williams is also on hand to put in an affirming performance as Goona (whose name is another wink to the sport), a stereotype-smashing, football-obsessed ancestor of Arya Stark who is tasked with turning Dug’s oafish tribe into a top team.
Early Man isn’t the best Aardman film, but it isn’t the worst, either (that honor goes to the middling Flushed Away). It is short on plot layers, but this has the effect of making the time spent in front of the screen zip by, meaning Early Man feels like a sweet little snatch of escapist fun if nothing more. In spite of its flaws, it reminds movie lovers that we should retain a place in our hearts for less technologically snazzy animation. Dug’s satisfaction with the simple life of shiny newness might just be an analogy for Aardman’s continual embrace of its humble Claymation roots amidst an increasingly CGI-heavy animation landscape.
Early Man opens in theaters on the 16th of February.