The new film from Aardman Animations sets out a very ambitious table of treats in its opening five minutes or so. As a stop-frame animated piece, it immediately zeroes in on a prehistoric area of the planet just outside of Manchester. Thus Early Man starts with a lovely homage to the style of Ray Harryhausen, then charts the end of the dinosaurs, introduces some furry underpants, and finally covers the genesis of soccer. Now, that’s efficiency. Proper storytelling efficiency.
Early Man is the hugely enjoyable new film from the sure-to-be-knighted, multi-Oscar winning director Nick Park, who in turn has invented his first collection of totally brand new characters since 2000’s Chicken Run. He’s settled his story on a bunch of generally lump-headed caveman and women, all with geographic roots in the UK, who live in a valley that’s overshadowed by the apparently progressive Bronze Age City next door.
Whilst the cavefolk, cheerily led by Eddie Redmayne’s Dug and his dad, Timothy Spall’s Chief Bobnar, try and prolong their existence, the dastardly Lord Nooth next door (Tom Hiddleston) has other ideas. As does his Queen (Miriam Margolyes!). In any other world, this could end with a big battle, loads of crashing special effects, and many explosions. Park, however, fancies a game of footie instead. As such, Dug and his cohorts–in spite of never having played the game before–end up in a challenge match with the all-conquering Real Bronzio for the future of their habitat.
Just the thought of manually animating a football match boggles the mind, not least when it’s immediately apparent that so much of Early Man is hand-crafted animation (CG is often in the background, rarely in the foreground). From thumbprints on the characters to the distinctive facial detail that you can take for granted with Aardman, there’s more humanity in these animated creations than you get in any number of CG movies. And Aardman, of course, makes the football moments look seamless.
In terms of the story itself, there’s quite a lot of character and story nuance that Park weaves into his film, but in true Aardman fashion, it never feels like heavy-lifting. Once the initial setup is in place, it takes just a little bit of time to warm up, but once Dug–beautifully voiced by Redmayne, with a terrific cheeky giggle–encounters Maisie Williams’ Goona, things accelerate, and the film is continually entertaining. It’s a proper chuckle film with background gags if you want them too, and I found myself quickly and utterly relaxing into Early Man, and being flat out grateful that it, Nick Park, and Aardman exist. For as much as we talk about the craft of Aardman, what’s shouldn’t be overlooked is how hard they work on a story.
Nor should just how cinematic of a director Nick Park is be ignored. From camera angle choices to the way he gets characters to stare straight down the lens without breaking the fourth wall, the stop-motion form never gives the impression that it compromises the look of the film he wants to make. Get him in a pub, and there’s a sporting chance you’ll find out it does, but as an audience member, I can never tell.
I don’t think Early Man is quite at the peak of the Wallace & Gromit shorts–I hold “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave” in particularly high esteem–but it’s very much a joyous family movie. Perhaps in some of the early moments, the initial dialogue exchanges between the characters don’t immediately crackle. I’m no expert, but I’d just suggest that in one dialogue scene, for example, the cuts feel around half a beat out. The conventions of the sports movie are also fairly dutifully obeyed. But then there’s always something brilliant around the corner. A detail, a quick gag, a sign in the background, or a shot that makes you all but stand up and applaud. All wrapped into an intelligent, bright, enjoyable story with pretty much universal appeal.
It does feel like Park has only just begun to scratch the surface of Dug and his cohorts, and he’s given himself a starring role for as long as he wants it by casting himself as the voice/noise of scene-stealing Hognob. Be it in short films or a full-on sequel, more Early Man would be a very welcome thing. For now, a continued gratitude that Aardman not only exists, but continues to maintain its high standards. Early Man is a real treat.
Early Man opens in the U.S. on Friday, Feb. 16.