Early Man is technically-impressive and boasts strong visuals, but its simple story holds it back from reaching its full potential.
Early Man is the latest movie from Aardman Animations, the British-based studio best known for producing stop-motion films such as Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep Movie. Over the years, they've earned a reputation as a favorite among animation enthusiasts, picking up a plethora of accolades and awards. Early Man director Nick Park is one of their most decorated members, having won an Oscar for his work on Aardman's 2005 offering, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. With Park tackling the studio's most ambitious project to date, the hope was that it could emerge as a modern classic of its genre, but the film doesn't quite get there. Early Man is technically-impressive and boasts strong visuals, but its simple story holds it back from reaching its full potential.
At some point in Earth's early history, a tribe of Stone Age cavemen led by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) spend their days hunting rabbits for food. One member of the group, Dug (Eddie Redmayne), has dreams of the tribe taking down something bigger, but Chief is content staying in his lane as a rabbit hunter. Not only does he have doubts the cavemen would even be capable of killing a mammoth, cave paintings of their ancestors hunting down small creatures serve as a daily reminder of what their purpose is.
One day, the tribe's peaceful existence is disrupted by the arrival of a Bronze Age army led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), who orders the cavemen be banished to the badlands while he mines the area for more bronze. During his attempt to fight back, Dug is unknowingly taken to the Bronze Age city and finds himself partaking in a soccer game with the city's finest athletes. Realizing the cave paintings were his ancestors inventing the beautiful sport of football, Dug strikes a deal with Nooth. If the Stone Age defeats the Bronze Age in a game, the cavemen will get their valley back. With the help of Bronze Age citizen Goona (Maisie Williams), Dug tries to coach his friends so they can win.
Early Man's biggest shortcoming, unfortunately, is the script credited to Mark Burton and James Higginson (from a story by Burton and Park). While it does have fun setting up the film's world and employs solid use of humor that ultimately pays off, the screenplay is hamstrung by a very basic, by-the-numbers storyline that doesn't leave much to the imagination. Once Park establishes Early Man as an underdog sports comedy (think Space Jam), savvy audiences will be able to predict its narrative trajectory and see the end coming from a mile away. It would have been nice to see some twists and turns along the way to keep the audience guessing, but the journey is still fairly entertaining and includes nice lessons about teamwork for the younger viewers in attendance.
Likewise, the ensemble cast of characters are also a mixed bag. On the positive side of the spectrum, Dug makes for a good protagonist with his go-getter attitude and Redmayne's natural sweetness. The character doesn't have a particularly profound arc, but he's easy to root for due to his everyman qualities. Hiddleston, long a great villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, jumps at the chance to do a funny voice and chew scenery as Nooth, giving Early Man a fittingly over-the-top nefarious presence and a proper foil for Dug to overcome. Dug also has a nice father/son dynamic with Chief that serves as part of the film's emotional core as they both help each other grow over the course of the story. Again, Early Man isn't reinventing the wheel in this regard, though there are some touching moments. Dug's pet boar Hognob (voiced by Park) is also a funny scene-stealer.
However, the supporting cast is largely underserved. Dug's tribe is populated by a collection of idiosyncratic cavemen characters that all have a unique trait or running gag to make them stand out, but the parts are rather thinly written. Even though the moral of the story is unity and togetherness, Early Man could have benefitted from injecting some personality into other members of the ensemble besides Dug and Chief. Many of their fellow cavemen are two-dimensional, and while they are amusing to watch, they don't leave much of an impact. The same can be said for Goona; it's a nice touch the role of the cavemen's well-meaning football instructor was filled by a female character (something Early Man makes a joke about), but Goona isn't really defined beyond that. Fortunately, Park does resist the temptation to shoehorn an overt romance between Dug and Goona as he keeps the focus on the soccer game.
Whatever shortcomings are in the script are easier to accept due to Early Man's strong technical merits. It's no surprise an Aardman film has incredible visuals and looks fantastic on the big screen. Park, a veteran of this art form, demonstrates a deft handling of the increased scope, utilizing new techniques during production to make this a claymation film with arguably unprecedented scale. For cinephiles, Early Man will be a treat to watch, as it's impossible to not be impressed by the craftsmanship on display. This was a massive undertaking for Park's team and everyone came to play in this respect.
In the end, Early Man may not go down as one of Aardman's best efforts, but it is a cute and harmless time at the movies for families in the early part of 2018. Its story, while hardly original and reliant on clichés, never overstays its welcome with a brisk runtime and it was obviously made from a place of love by Park and company. Much like Pixar, "lesser" Aardman is still worth checking out in theaters - especially for parents with kids looking for something well-made and occasionally sincere.
Early Man is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 89 minutes and is rated PG for rude humor and some action.
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