I remember watching the first three Wallace & Gromit shorts years ago and thinking to myself that Nick Park and Aardman had really created something special. To this day, I still love the way all their characters are imbued with life. They have these magical personalities which shine through and draw the viewer in to whatever foolishness is taking place. And, that foolishness is something special as well – it is all so exceptionally clever and well done.
I don’t know that Nick Park and company have done as well with their newest film, “Early Man.” That is not to say that the movie falls flat, it doesn’t, it just isn’t as full of the same sort of verve or energy. Actually, perhaps the best way to say it is that it has the exact same amount of verve as those Wallace & Gromit shorts, but it’s spread out over a feature length project. Fortunately for “Early Man,” those Wallace & Gromit shorts have energy to spare.
The story here, by Mark Burton and Park with Burton and James Higginson having written the screenplay, finds a small tribe of Stone Age people having to play a football match (soccer to us, but they use “football” in the movie and so I will here as well) for their home against a Bronze Age kingdom which wants to take the Stone Age valley and mine for bronze in it. It is an utterly classic, underdog sports tale with the plucky underdogs having to battle the bigger, ostensibly better, team.
Although nominally led by their chief, Bobnar (Timothy Spall), the true person front and center in the small tribe is Dug (Eddie Redmayne). It is Dug who realizes his tribe played football many generations earlier (and not since); it is Dug who first ventures to the Bronze Age city to learn more about them; and it is Dug who challenges their leader, Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), to a football match pitting the Bronze Age team, Real Bronzio, against Dug’s tribe.
“Early Man” is full of exceptionally clever moments, things that will make one laugh out loud and admire the creativity of the endeavor. It all starts out with the origins of football on Earth, a great scene that calls to mind the opening of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” During the big match, there is puppet instant replay of big plays, which is nothing short of brilliant. At other points in the film, a messenger bird (voiced by Rob Brydon) absolutely steals the show (as does Dug’s pet pig, Hognob).
While elements that go into telling the story are unquestionably inspired, the story itself is all a little ho-hum. It doesn’t have much to keep one invested. Essentially, the Bronze Age people take over the Stone Age valley, the Stone Age people challenge them to a match, the team prepares for the match (with the help of a member of the Bronze Age city, Goona, voiced by Maisie Williams), and then they have the match. The stakes are established early, there is little in the way of additional conflict, and the whole movie just plays out in relatively straightforward fashion.
Aardman, however, is still able to bring these clay figures to life in incredible ways. From start to finish, the animation is brilliant. The sets are gorgeous and vibrant, characters move in amazing fashion, and it flows so wonderfully. One would never mistake any of it for reality, but that is in no way the goal. It is all alive in a completely different way, but it is all alive nonetheless.
“Early Man” is an enjoyable movie. It tells a very relatable tale, but one which is easy and obvious. While this does allow the audience to get a better sense of the effort that went into actually making the movie happen, and to notice all the small things (like the names of some of the stores in the Bronze Age city), that doesn’t make up for the mundane way in which too much of it plays out.
It is good, but it is not great, and while it might be unfair to ask Aardman and Park to make greatness every time, that is something we have come to expect from them.
photo credit: Lionsgate/Aardman