Film Review: Early Man

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Sam Bathe on 25 Jan 2018

When a meteor crash lands on earth, besides wiping out the vast majority of life, it leaves a ginormous crater and a gang of cavemen bemused by what they just saw. Approaching the meteor’s little core, one of the cavemen picks it up, but still hot to the touch, so he quickly drops it and inadvertently kicks it into the path of another caveman. He kicks it on, then on to another, and before you know it, they’ve invented football. Bizarrely, the centre piece of Aardman’s latest feature, Early Man.

Fast forward a few thousand years, Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe live a simple life in the crater. Catching rabbits by day and sleeping under the stars by night, before they know it their utopia is abruptly ended by the wrecking balls of Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), a power-hungry leader from the next town over. Nooth destroys the tribe’s homes and lays claim to the land, wanting to mine every inch of the creator for ore.

While the rest of the tribe gets away, Dug finds himself trapped inside one of Nooth’s transport pods, and when he finally gets away, he discovers that the world has moved on outside the crater. With the Bronze Age well under way, food stalls sit one way, and sword-smiths the other.

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So far, so good, but it’s here where Early Man takes a strange turn. When horns start to blaze and the entire city charts a course for the town amphitheatre, it turns out this Bronze Age civilisation is obsessed with… football.

While everyone is piling into the stadium, Dug escapes the town guards by sneaking into the stadium changing quarters, but putting on the only disguise he can find (a goalkeeper’s outfit), he’s quickly forced in line with the home team and walked out onto the pitch.

Two goals down and Nooth spots something is amiss, but when Dug is discovered he makes one last play to save his home, and offers his captor a challenge: Nooth’s all-stars take on Dug’s rag-tag clan, winner gets the crater.

From there on, Early Man follows the usual sports movie tropes. Dug finds his gang and with the help of football fanatic Goona (Maisie Williams) – not allowed to play for Nooth’s side because she’s a girl – they train up for the big match.

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It was a bizarre choice to make football the central element of Early Man. Once the sports story took hold, I kept thinking “and when is the real plotline going to kick in”, but that was it, there was no pivot and the films stumbles along to the big match finale.

That the beautiful game was invented at the dawn of time is a funny concept, as is the idea of the Stone Age vs. the Bronze Age on the football field, but there’s only enough plot for a quirky 15-minute short – not a 87-minute feature – and on several occasions the plot really runs out of steams.

With narrative steps are so clearly signposted along the way, Early Man is unadventurous and plays it too safe. It’s inoffensive and suitable for all the family, but it doesn’t feel inventive, and it doesn’t have the charm or wit we’ve come to expect from Nick Park.

Silly goofs raise a few chuckles but there isn’t the same sense of humour that runs through all of Aardman’s best stuff. Early Man is charming and means well, but it’s all without real personality, and the biggest laughs come from football puns that will go over the head of much of the audience.

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In the voice cast, Tom Hiddleston clearly enjoyed hamming it up as villain Lord Nooth, but it’s Rob Bryden who steals the show as a carrier pigeon – yes, you read that right – and two football commentators. Richard Ayoade is ever-brilliant too, despite only reading only a handful of lines.

I’m loathe to call an Aardman picture run of the mill but unfortunately Early Man is just about that drab. Compared to Pixar’s recent masterpiece Coco, so full of life, imagination eccentricity, Early Man is middling, it’s grey vs. technicolour.

Still Early Man is not a complete disaster, and being an Aardman picture, the animation is smooth and colourful; their classic overstylised figures are still as much of a joy as when Wallace & Gromit first hit the screen. But  Early Man needs more than that, and it’s just such a surprise that nobody caught that something was missing; it’s an Aardman picture, but it doesn’t have the Aardman soul.

2/5

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