I don’t think it’s a controversial opinion to say that Aardman is my favourite animation studio. Through their short films and feature films, Aardman has established a niche for themselves in creating likeable characters mixed with a great sense of humour and a lovingly handmade aesthetic for their stop motion, with the work of Nick Park helping to bring Aardman into the mainstream. With the Wallace and Gromit series and Chicken Run, Park has established himself as one of the titans of stop motion animation and, seeing how this is the first film, short or feature, that Park has directed since Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death in 2008, I was eagerly anticipating the film. Having seen the film, I have to say that it is a lower tier Aardman film, but it’s still a lot of fun.
The plot concerns a tribe of cavemen living in a valley in the crater created by the meteor that killed the dinosaurs who find their peaceful lives as rabbit hunters challenged by the arrival of a Bronze Age civilization led by Lord Nooth who forces the tribe out of their home. To try and reclaim their home, one of the tribe members, Dug, goes to the Bronze Age village where he discovers the popularity of football, challenging the Bronze Age team to a game to reclaim the valley, getting the help of Goona, a villager that’s skilled at football but isn’t allowed to play, to train his tribe, with the tribe being sent to work in the Bronze mines if they lose the game. Now the overall tone and structure of the film is pretty much every single sports film you can think of. If there’s a cliche you would come to expect from a sports film, it’s almost certainly in Early Man and for the tone of the film it works. Since the plot is pretty predictable and the characters act the exact way you’d expect the characters in a sports film to act, it allows more time to be spent in creating the humour of the film, with this humour helping to breath new life into the cliches of sports films. Make no mistake, the humour is the star of the show, making good use of anachronism gags, particularly in the Bronze Age village, and extensive use of puns. It’s hard to explain why the humour works in the film since it is mostly visual based and explaining the humour would spoil the jokes, but I’ll just say that I laughed consistently throughout the film.
The cast in the film does a good job in adding to the humour as well. Eddie Redmayne as Dug gives a very warm, enthusiastic performance, making Dug a very charming character, along with presenting a good sense of wonder. Tom Hiddleston steals every scene he’s in as Nooth, hamming it up every chance he gets and doing his best impression of the French Taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the ridiculous accent fitting the over the top nature of the character. Maisie Williams does another good bad French accent as Goona, and gives another charming performance and provides a good culture clash with the caveman tribe. Timothy Spall does solid work as a father figure to Dug as the Chief of Dug’s tribe, having the right level of concern for the character. For the other members of the tribe, you get exactly the sort of performances you’d expect from Richard Ayoade, Johnny Vegas, Mark Williams and Gina Yashere whilst for the Bronze Age villagers, there’s some good comedy work from Kayvan Novak and Miriam Margolyes and the film gets stolen through the multiple characters played by Rob Brydon including a messenger bird allowing him to make good use of his impression skills and a pair of commentators for the final football match who make an endless stream of football puns.
On a technical level, the film maintains the high standards you expect from an Aardman film. The actual animation itself is excellent, the effort for every single movement coming across in every frame you see in the film, This is why I like seeing the fingerprints on each of the plasticine models, the tactile feel this gives to all of the characters in the film helps give Aardman films a unique feel that other stop motion films lack. The set design and background animation is excellent as well. As is expected from an Aardman film at this point there are dozens of jokes hidden in the background and again, the effort that went into constructing the sets for a joke that will only be on screen for a few seconds is incredible. The character design meanwhile helps in making the characters likeable and giving a strong personality to the film, alongside the animation for the characters, with this being true for background characters and the animals in the films, Dug’s pig Hognob being the standout in this regard, the animation and grunts provided by Nick Park giving Hognob a good personality throughout the film.
Overall, Early Man isn’t a film that will set the world alight and it’s not as good as other Aardman films, but it’s a great piece of fun. Sure the characters are thin and the plot is predictable but for the tone the film is going for, it all works, helping to create a fun world that kept me amused throughout and I laughed all the way through.
My Rating: 4/5