Director: Nick Park
Cast: The voices of Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade, Mark Williams, Rob Brydon, Miriam Margolyes, Selina Griffiths, Simon Greenall, Gina Yashere, Richard Webber, Luke Walton, Nick Park
MPAA Rating: (for rude humor and some action)
Running Time: 1:29
Release Date: 2/16/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 16, 2018
Early Man, the new stop-motion animation movie from Aardman, opens with an inspired imagining of alternate history. In it, humans and dinosaurs lives side by side—the two groups fighting amongst each other but not, for reasons that should be obvious from the human perspective, against each other. This time period is, of course, unknown, since such a pairing of species never occurred, except in the minds of certain religious folks and cartoons.
What we do learn is that the specific event took place near Manchester around lunchtime. That's when the meteorite or asteroid struck prehistoric Earth (a misnomer in this story, since humans are both around and recording their history—whatever, though). A bright light and shockwave of debris seem to end the course of humanity, except that our pesky ancestors dig themselves out of the rubble, make their way to the massive crater that used to be home, and keep on going. One imagines that, since the events take place in what will be England in the future, this is first example of that famed stiff upper lip.
Not only do the human forebears go on with life, they also make the best of what the alien rock left them: a strange, red-hot sphere that's used in the first games of both hot potato and soccer. The first game of soccer isn't even interrupted when one of the players falls into a crevasse filled with lava or when the goalie is crushed by the slabs of stone that form the first goal.
Such random cruelties are, perhaps, befitting our ancient predecessors, and they're certainly quite funny within the context of the slightly absurd, historically nonsensical, and quite charming opening of Mark Burton and James Higginson's screenplay. The earliest humans here aren't particularly bright, but they're creative enough that death by misadventure isn't out of the question. One of the unspoken jokes here is that the descendants of these mildly clever, accident-prone humans are likely less intelligent than their ancestors. Humans can speak a few ages later, but they've grown rather complacent and comfortable. The idea of soccer is right in front of them, on a series of cave paintings, and they don't even recognize it.
The primary story here is of those descendants, who live in the crater that has now become a valley forest, where their basic needs are met. That's all they want from life—partially because it's easy, partially because they couldn't imagine anything beyond that, and partially because the land surrounding the crater is a barren wasteland of jagged rocks and active volcanoes.
The artists of Aardman, overseen by director Nick Park, are mostly known for their unique character designs—the exaggerated overbites for mouths, the googly eyes, and the obvious signs of fingerprints on the clay faces. Here, provided with the opportunity to imagine an ancient world of wonders and terrors (examples within each category being both sincere and sometimes silly), they've given us a lot to admire. From the sunlit forest, with animals scurrying and butterflies flittering, to the vast fortress of even more advanced humans who have evolved into the Bronze Age, the movie's sights are a surprising treat.
The same cannot be said of the story, which takes the clever setup of the misfortunes of early humans, as well as an inter-evolutionary conflict, and arrives at little more than a sports story about a group of underdogs. Within the forest tribe is Dug (voice of Eddie Redmayne), who believes that his fellow humans should aspire to more than living comfortably and hunting rabbits. Chief Bobnar (voice of Timothy Spall) disagrees, but the quarrel means little when Lord Nooth (voice of Tom Hiddleston, sporting an amusingly ridiculous French accent), the governor of a local Bronze-Age fortress, overtakes the forest to mine bronze from the ground.
Infiltrating the fortress, Dug ends up challenging the champion soccer team to a match to win back his home. If he and his Stone-Age companions lose, they'll spend the rest of their lives mining bronze. They get some help from Goona (voice of Maisie Williams), a girl who dreams of but is not allowed to play soccer.
Interspersed between the routine plot are some clever gags, including a messenger bird (voiced by Rob Brydon), which mimics the words and actions of the message's sender, and a joke involving a giant boulder, a duck, and deceptive perspective. We get a slightly amusing training montage, in which the rough landscape of "the badlands" provides the early humans with makeshift exercise equipment. We also, though, get a series of dead-end jokes, from an extended sequence of Dug trying to steal soccer balls from the fortress (which includes a lengthy gag about Dug's pet pig giving Nooth a massage), to a pair of soccer commentators (also voiced by Brydon) who speak in puns, and to the apparently inevitable moment when a giant bird drops a big, white something on someone (It's not an egg).
After the promising first act, the jokes become more miss than hit, and there's no denying that the narrative possibilities of Early Man are ultimately wasted on a formulaic plot. We shouldn't care about that second part, but the jokes don't provide a reasonable enough distraction.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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