Film reviews and more since 2009

Early Man (2018) review

Dir. Nick Park

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Nick Park’s Early Man is a pleasant-enough David and Goliath sports story, the latter figure represented by Bronze Age tyrants and the former’s spirit embodied by several members of a group of cavemen from the Stone Age. The plethora of caricatures from both respective periods in the history of man clash over a game of football (soccer, if you’re American) that, if won by the cavemen, will have their valley of land returned to them after having it cruelly hijacked by the Bronze age-dwellers. Being that the Stone Age cavemen’s rampant ineptitude prevents them from even successfully hunting and cooking a rabbit, they must work overtime to perfect what little hand-eye coordination they have in order even to have a chance against their far more sophisticated rivals (or successors).

To use terms even the characters in the film would understand, Early Man is a bronze-mine of serviceable comedy. It’s another visually distinct claymation effort from Aardman Animations, the folks who brought us Chicken Run and Flushed Away many moons ago, and more recently, Shaun the Sheep Movie in 2015. You know the type of character animation they use: narrow heads, bulging eyes, wide mouths with thick, rounded lips, and pokey teeth unique to every character. The acclaimed studio has only released seven (soon to be eight) films since 2000, but, like Laika, another stop-motion company, they have an eye for their animation and a way with their storytelling that gets you to remember every film they’ve done. For some, Early Man‘s simplicity might challenge that notion. Even at 81 minutes sans credits, your mileage may vary given the predictable, if enjoyable, humor that runs amok like a caveman with a spear.

Our main character is the optimistic young caveman Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), who, along with Chief (Timothy Spall), is the voice of reason and optimism when his tribe, and age, is displaced by the Bronze Age. In a time of uncertainty, he tries to assure his tribesmen (voiced by Selina Griffiths, Johnny Vegas, and Richard Ayoade, just to name a few) they have a chance against the suave and accomplished Bronze football team. However, their main barrier comes in the form of Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), the leader of the Bronze City, who himself is instructed by the Queen (Miriam Margolyes) via loud and demanding messages communicated through a traveling bird. Dug and his tribe manage to find some stability under the instruction of Goona (Maisie Williams), a young Bronze Age gal who gives them all lessons on how to improve their football skills in preparation for the big game.

There are two kinds of tropes screenwriters Mark Burton and James Higginson use as the source of their humor. The first is the slapstick, including, but certainly not limited to, characters catapulting into things, crashing into one another, getting hit in the face by soccer balls and large fruits, and senselessly running around trying to make sense of their surroundings. The second is quips that serve to remind us of the film’s time period. For example, a character walks up to a stand in the Bronze Age City and vocalizes her fascination about sliced bread: “that’s the best thing since, well, ever!” As grating as these quips may sound, in the context of the film, they’re pleasantly light-hearted and make no attempt to be more than what they are.

The same can be said for Early Man as a whole, which boasts gorgeous and fluently animated characters. The soccer scenes are especially dynamic, with the characters assuming a full-range of motion that also has the animators recognizing the infinite possibilities of what their eclectic cast can do when fighting over a round ball on a wide-open field. With that, even if the cavemen characters are thinly contextualized, when given their instances in the spotlight, they come alive by accentuating their own quirk enough to render them at least a surface identity. This vaguely reminded me of Ed, Edd n Eddy, one of my all-time favorite animated TV shows, in the way that even if the supporting players didn’t have significant parts, their moments to shine gave them enough so they didn’t feel like dead weight. The same can be said for Treebor and his overbearing mother, or even Barry and his best friend Mr. Rock.

The film was directed by Nick Park, known as the driving force behind the Wallace and Gromit shorts and movies, as well as the more recent Shaun the Sheep installments. Dug and his pet boar Hognob don’t achieve the dynamic qualities of the amiable inventor and his trusty dog, but they make functional use of the space in which Park and the respective writers provide. It’s fair to say how simple and sometimes crude Early Man is as a film, but perhaps by rising above those traits, it would’ve been giving its characters too much credit. After all, I’m sure they’d be content knowing they were reimagined as football-savvy goofballs.

NOTE: As of this writing, Early Man is available to stream on multiple platforms.

REVIEWS OF OTHER AARDMAN FILMS:
My review of Chicken Run
My review of Shaun the Sheep Movie
My review of Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget

Voiced by: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Miriam Margolyes, Selina Griffiths, Johnny Vegas, and Richard Ayoade. Directed by: Nick Park.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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