Bit of a dinosaur.
Early Man’s trailers proudly bill its prehistoric dwellers as the ancestors of Wallace & Gromit. In one sense, that genealogy holds true. Both its heroes and villains are charmingly brought to life by Aardman’s talented animators – expect impossibly wide grins, fat hands, and jutting ears, sculpted out of colourful clay. But in another sense, the historical line is harder to trace. Not only does Early Man lack the regional charm and cosy humour of Aardman’s most famous duo, it fails to explore its rich primeval setting, delivering a formulaic story with few genuine laughs.
The movie isn’t quite what you might expect either. It opens with a meteor hurtling towards Earth. A T-Rex tussles with a triceratops, while early man takes shelter. The meteor hits, obliterates the dinosaurs, and is reduced to spherical glowing rock at the centre of a sizzling crater. Intrigued, the cavemen try to move it, but due to its intense heat they drop it and begin to kick it. And so the sport of football is created. (Soccer for my North American chums reading.) Yes, Early Man – despite its prehistoric setting – is a football film.
Flash-forward several generations, and early man faces yet another threat: progress. The Bronze Age is in the ascendancy. Metal and towns are about to replace stone and tribes. Spearheaded by the money-hungry, haughty Lord Nooth – brilliantly voiced by Tom Hiddleston putting on a wonderfully mad French accent – the Bronze Age tribe annexes early man from its valley which it intends on turning it into a lucrative ore mine.
But there’s hope. One of the tribe’s youngest members, Dug (Eddie Redmayne), isn’t willing to lie down and accept a new life in the badlands. After discovering the Bronze Age people’s love of football, he challenges them to a game, despite his tribe not playing the sport for generations. If they win, they can return to their home; if they lose, it’s a life spent mining lovely precious ore.
From hereon the story is pretty straightforward, as you’d expect from an underdog sports tale. There’s a series of training montages and setbacks, before the climactic match. Unfortunately it all unfolds lacking the quaint British humour for which Aardman has been celebrated in the past. A lot of the gags are little more than groan-inducing, clunky puns. (Ironically, there’s a pair of commentators who seem to be aware of how grating bad puns can be.) Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run had similar tendencies, but they appear here without the same warmth and wit found in those movies.
Sadly the humour falls flat more often than not. Dug’s tribe is a motley crew of young and old (the chief has reached his 30s!), male and female, smart and dim-witted. While the acting is consistently strong and enjoyable – with distinctive British voices Johnny Vegas, Richard Ayoade, Mark Williams, and Miriam Margolyes standing out – the script sells them short. Take Vegas: he has a great regional voice, perfect for an Aardman movie, but as the token Northerner is lumped with a character called ‘Asbo’ and punctuates each of his lines with the refrain “Champion!” It soon becomes grating.
Lead character Dug is a likeable and earnest kid, who wants the best for his tribe, but lacks the charm of Aardman’s best lead characters. Yet he’s not really close to anyone in his tribe. His mother and father are inexplicably absent. He has Hognob, his trusty pet boar, but he does little to become an endearing sidekick. Eventually he meets Goona (Maisie Williams), a citizen of the Bronze Age town and a seriously talented striker. For some reason she decides to help Dug, and a friendship/romance blooms but it never really has enough time to grow into something more interesting.
Occasionally Early Man reaches beyond the low-hanging pun. There’s a cheeky, if rather niche parallel drawn between early man’s feeble footballing prowess as the creators of the game and the dismal displays of England’s national team on the world stage over the last 50 years. (Imagine if the whole thing was a heavily-coded satire of the FA’s mismanagement of the nation’s grassroots game.) And there’s a genuine and rather surreal belly laugh to be had courtesy of a very angry duck. But once the football narrative takes hold, the possibilities of the prehistoric setting dry up, and Early Man settles into a much more predictable movie than I expected.
While the story and script feel a little thin, the animation is consistently delightful. Aardman’s characters and sets still have a more tactile feel than any other stop-frame animation studio. There’s a intentional crudity to their designs which makes you instantly warm to them. Each character and set feels handmade – poked, prodded, thumbed, and tweaked by caring, patient digits. The action set pieces, especially the climactic football match, are exciting and impressively brought to life, with sweeping camera movements adding a sense of grandeur to these odd characters kicking about a ball.