D: Nick Park / 89m
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Miriam Margolyes, Rob Brydon, Richard Ayoade, Mark Williams, Kayvan Novak, Johnny Vegas, Gina Yashere, Nick Park
In Nick Park’s debut feature as a solo director (and somehow that doesn’t feel right), we’re asked to take a lot on faith: that football was created by an isolated tribe in the Stone Age, that said tribe have remained isolated until the arrival of the Bronze Age, that they’ve lost the ability to play football during that period, and that they’ve somehow survived all this time purely through hunting rabbits (and though they all wear the skins of much larger animals – whom we never see). All perfectly plausible, right? Right. And especially so in the uniquely weird and wonderful world of Aardman animation. After all, what could be so unlikely about a challenge match between a Stone Age team of under-achievers and a Bronze Age team overseen by a villainous nobleman called Lord Nooth (Hiddleston)? There’s nothing unlikely in that at all. The only thing about it that’s unlikely is that audiences might not be charmed and amused by the exploits of Dug (Redmayne), his pet wild boar Hognob (Park), his tribe, and their bronze coin loving adversary. It’s Aardman; what’s not to like?
Now if that all sounds like a set up designed to reveal that the movie isn’t very good, then rest assured it is good, and very much so. But Early Man is an Aardman movie that requires audiences to approach it with a certain amount of caution. First of all, it’s very funny, and in the whimsical, very British way that only Aardman can manufacture. Park (who came up with the original story idea) and co-writers Mark Burton and James Higginson have created a world full of inspired sight gags, inspired dialogue, inspired character-based comedy, and a ton of in-jokes. The animation, as expected, is on a par with previous Aardman movies and shorts – meaning it’s excellent – and there is a limited use of CG that, for once, is in support of the Claymation process and doesn’t overwhelm it. Park’s direction is fluid, with an economy of style that matches the material, and there’s terrific voice work from the entire cast, though if you had to highlight anyone’s performance, it would be Brydon as the messenger bird (think Zazu from The Lion King (1994) but with increased attitude). Like all Aardman productions there is a surfeit of riches, and it’s immensely enjoyable.
The caution, though, is to do with the storyline. It’s slight, very slight. So slight in fact that there are periods where the movie stalls in its own version of a half-time break. This is where Park and his co-contributors provide more exposition than is actually needed, where the rhythm of the movie slows noticeably and the pace struggles to be regained, and the need to make the movie play out to around the ninety minute mark becomes all too obvious. All these things stop Early Man from being on a par with Chicken Run (2000) or Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). Here – and despite all the plusses to be found elsewhere – by the time the match starts it’s with some semblance of relief. At this point, the script and the movie both knuckle down and provide a satisfying climax and they earn enough overall merit points to make it all feel as if it’s been time well spent… which it has. It’s an unusual feeling, to be watching something that’s so enjoyable, while at the same time, feeling that there’s something lacking, but that’s the vibe that Early Man gives off. But it’s still a must-see movie, if only to witness once again the absolute pleasure that can be achieved with, and by, lumps of clay.
Rating: 7/10 – like Pixar, Aardman work to very high standards, so when a movie doesn’t quite hit the heights that they or their fans are expecting, it’s always a bit of a disappointment, but though Early Man isn’t as impressive story-wise as it could have been, it’s still a great movie with much to offer; Hognob is like a Stone Age Gromit (no bad thing), there are more football puns than you can shake a woolly mammoth at, and look out for dinosaurs Ray and Harry – a lovely tribute to stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen.
Postscript: Early Man was given a preview screening at London’s BFI Southbank on 20 January 2018. Following the screening there was a Q&A with Nick Park. Questions were taken from the audience, and one little girl asked, “What was the name of the rabbit?” (a rabbit, a likely ancestor of Hutch from Curse of the Were-Rabbit, is the main target of Dug’s tribe). Park admitted that the rabbit was never given a name, and then he asked the little girl what she thought the rabbit should be called. There was a pause, and then the little girl replied (and with perfect timing), “Rabbit.”