What is Early Man?
Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures roamed the earth, Early Man tells the story of courageous caveman hero Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his best friend, wild boar Hognob, as they unite their tribe against the formidable Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) and his Bronze Age City to save their home.
There is an inherent charm to Aardman’s Claymation output that secures it a minimum three-star rating before you’ve even assessed anything else. And you can’t fail to appreciate the great affection and sheer hard work that goes into creating their stop-motion classics, which makes a viewing – and repeat viewings — delightful. Early Man fits that mould.
Early Man is typically Aardman – which is what you want from one of the studio’s films. But that doesn’t mean it’s a case of same *cough* shot, different day. To set it apart, director and writer Nick Park has set the film in caveman times – and given his all-new band of characters a neat little sports drama arc. Early Man is essentially a soccer movie about a team of Stone-Age underdogs competing against some top-level Bronze-Age pros, with everything at stake.
You can’t halt progress is the message, but you can stall it a little, and make the terms a bit more reasonable, if you make a stand and fight fairly for what you believe in. Oh, and cheaters never prosper. The film also makes a sly little allegory for the current Brexit drama playing out in British politics. Park’s film paints Europe initially as the big bad wolf but ultimately illustrates that if we come together, a harmonious balance can be achieved.
The Sidekick Rules
Big bad wolf aside, the star of the show is a little wild boar by the name of Hognob. Sidekick to the film’s main protagonist Dug, Hognob shines every time he’s on screen – in all of his adorable actions, Nick Park-vocalised sounds and facial expressions. He even gets one of the film’s best scenes, where he poses as masseur to Lord Nooth, and tries not to get found out.
Non-speaking characters are Aardman’s greatest strength. When you think of their back catalogue, the characters most fondly remembered for being a heart-swelling combination of funny, charming and just-so-cute-they-make-you-cry are the Gromits, the Shaun the Sheeps and the Feathers McGraws of the universe. Hognob joins that illustrious list.
It’s testament to the gifted animators responsible for bringing Aardman’s characters to life that this is the case. They’re unrivalled when it comes to building charm into a simple mouth movement, hand action or, in the case of Early Man especially, teeth. Dug’s goofy, gappy gnashers are simultaneously hilarious and endearing. And then there’s the attention to detail paid to background characters. Dinosaurs, giant critters, crocodiles-as-clothes-pegs and a massive man-eating mallard are among the plasticine delights on display.
Voice talent, meanwhile, is everything in a film like this in order to fulfil the speaking characters’ potential. Some animated films seem to make their casting decisions based on the biggest names they can secure rather than what the best voice performance for the role might be. Aardman rarely fails to put a foot wrong in this area, picking the right voice choice ahead of other considerations. That’s not to say they don’t secure big stars. Quite the contrary – Asgard’s God of Mischief himself, Tom Hiddleston; Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams; and Fantastic Beasts actor Eddie Redmayne pick up the main roles in Early Man.
But all three do a standout job, even if Maisie Williams’ curious quasi-Norwegian accent is all over the place. Of course, that doesn’t really matter, aside from potentially distracting you as you attempt to place it. It’s Hiddleston and his ‘Allo ‘Allo-style French accent that steals the spotlight when it comes to human characters, though. He’s the villain of the piece, naturally – this is Loki after all.
Equally important is the casting in the supporting roles. Dug’s clan of Stone-Age villagers is made up of characters with names such as Treebor, Barry and Asbo and British acting talent including Richard Ayoade, Mark Williams, Johnny Vegas and Timothy Spall. Delivering a range of regional British accents, they’re the key to keeping the audience engaged in the story, especially when a joke creeps into the script you’ve heard a thousand times before or at points where the story might otherwise sag.
Where It Falls Short
Less successful aspects of Early Man include the humour. It’s hit and miss, swinging wildly between smart lines and references, or cleverly realised segments, and lazy, hackneyed gags.
There’s also the matter of the footy storyline – it follows an oft-repeated formula which may well leave you counting down the minutes to the end of the film, since you know how it’s all going to play out. On top of that, some of the football talk feels forced and may make you cringe — like so many soccer films before it. It does give Park the opportunity, however, to stuff his film full of football Easter Eggs, referencing Peter Crouch’s famous robot goal celebration and the iconic vuvuzela for starters.
Nevertheless, you do find yourself genuinely willing the Stone Age brutes to win; a victory of pacing and characterisation on Park’s part. Early Man isn’t up there with the Wallace and Gromit films and falls short of the Shaun the Sheep Movie but it’s probably on a par with Chicken Run.
Is Early Man Good?
Full of characteristic Aardman touches and flourishes, Early Man is at its best when concentrating on bringing its quirky, eccentric characters to life through charming animation and inspired voice casting.
It falls down when it relies a little too heavily on stale gags and its insistence on focusing on the sports drama aspect since it plays out with too-familiar an arc. It’s in danger at points of losing the interest of the audience. Thankfully, its more inventive moments bring us back round making Early Man a worthy addition to the Aardman stable.
Early Man hits screens in the UK on January 26 and in the US on February 16.