By: Hawk Ripjaw (Two Beers) –
It’s been a few eras since the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs and mostly ended generations of conflict and war, and a small tribe of humans have settled down in a lush valley nestled in the desolate badlands. While the tribe is content with hunting down tiny, adorable rabbits every day, Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his pet/best friend Hognob aspire for more. Shortly after, the valley is invaded by Bronze Age solders led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddelston), who wishes to mine ore from the valley. When taken to Nooth’s city, Dug witnesses their fanaticism for a sports game in which two groups of men attempt to kick a ball into a goal. Dug recognizes this from cave paintings in the valley, and realizes that this game has been in his blood for generations.
Dug recruits his tribe, as well as a shopkeep named Goona (Maisie Williams) from the city, and challenges Nooth’s team of champions to a game of soccer- winner takes back the valley.
That was a disappointing sentence to write.
Stop-motion animation has fallen to the wayside in recent years, but Early Man makes a strong case for its place in modern animation. This is an absolutely gorgeous movie. There is a startling attention to detail, from the eye movement of the characters, to the simultaneous independent movements of individual characters in a shot, to fur outfits rippling in the breeze, this is a fantastic testament to the incredible amount of work put into stop-motion. It’s so well-realized that it actually makes one forget that these are hand-crafted sets and characters that are animated frame by frame over literal years of work through hundreds of thousands of man hours.
Another Aardman mainstay is the wacky pun-based humor, which is reliably on-point. From sight gags to long-form setup-and-payoff, to the just generally delightfully stupid, almost the entirety of Early Man is very funny and almost certainly needs a second viewing to catch everything. A big part is the confidence in the jokes. Nick Park and his writers know they’re making something very gleefully dumb, so even a gag involving “Primordial Soup” being an actual dish is riotously funny.
The celebrity voice cast, refreshingly, are playing actual characters instead of themselves. Hiddelston, Redmayne, and Timothy Spall (as Chief Bobnar) in particular are lively standouts, but there are hardly any weak links in the cast. It’s one of those great animated movies where you can just tell how much fun the voice actors were having playing these roles.
Viewers’ mileage may vary based on how much they actually enjoy sports, but the soccer storyline that dominates the majority of Early Man is disappointingly lackluster. When Aardman has spent its lifetime demonstrating striking whimsy and inventiveness, soccer feels like a step down. The cavemen having to learn how to play the game and win ownership of their valley sounds like a great idea for a 15-minute short to precede the next Shaun the Sheep movie (which looks great), but as a feature it’s just not enough. It doesn’t help that it follows a similar blueprint to most sports movies, and as such the third act is very predictable.
Due to that shift in focus, there’s a noticeable drop in the both the comedy and the overall energy level once the movie starts into the third act. The level of skill in the animation reaches its peak in these scenes, but the narrative and the comedy falter for the last 30 minutes. The obvious original joke of “Man-chester United vs. Real (Bronze) Madrid” doesn’t have the comedic fuel to sustain an entire third act, and the movie reflects that.
Aardman Animation has, over the years, set an incredibly high bar for themselves and for animation. Early Man doesn’t quite reach it, with the weird lull in humor towards the beginning of the third act and lackluster sports storyline that fails to fully to justice to its world and characters. But an Aardman film that falls slightly below par is still an above average animated film. Early Man is still a comfortably goofy and quite entertaining movie that’s more than worth checking out. Its love and attention to the craft of stop-motion is still in full force, and that alone should warrant a ticket. It’s still a pretty great movie, even if it isn’t necessarily a great Aardman movie.
Early Man (2018) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every pun
Do a Shot: whenever Magma says something suggestive
Take a Drink: every time Hognob tries to do human stuff
Take a Drink: whenever a character sustains a violent injury