So Aardman Animations is one of the few film companies that utilize stop-motion animation out there besides Laika. The company has had a storied track record for over 40 years in television, but only started getting into film animation with hits like Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run, Arthur Christmas and Shaun the Sheep Movie. But they are far from perfect and have released subpar work Flushed Away and The Pirates! Band of Misfits, so it’s not always a guarantee that they’ll knock something out of the park. Though with Early Man, they managed to accrue a big budget cast for once.
Taking place a little bit after the extinction of the dinosaurs due to a meteorite, a bunch of cavemen come across the space rock and inadvertently create the game of football (or soccer for Americans). Years later, on the very spot where the game was created lives a Stone Age tribe led by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall…Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter movies) that hunts purely rabbits save for a young upstart named Dug (Eddie Redmayne) who wants to hunt something bigger. However, their lands are quickly taken over by a new tribe led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) with advanced weaponry courtesy of the Bronze Age. Dug ends up getting taken to the far advanced city where Nooth resides and find the residents enthralled by big-spectacle matches of football. Seeing an opportunity to reclaim his home, Dug challenges Nooth’s best players to a game where the winner takes control of his tribe’s lands. But given that Dug and his tribe have zero clue on how to play the sport in the first place, they get assistance from a young shopkeep named Goona (Maisie Williams) who always dreamed of being allowed to play a football team.
I wrote my synopsis this way as the Space Jam-like plot is not immediately apparent from the trailers which were much less clear about what this whole movie was really about. For the most part, the film is a parade of football puns and jokes in which some landed for me but others went right over my head. I only recognized a few through cultural osmosis thanks to friends who are die hard football fans, but the ones that did elicited a nice chuckle or two. That being said, the comedy fell a little flat most of the time to me and I think the set-up of the setting didn’t lend itself to many favors the way Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep did.
Hell compared to Aardman’s other output, the humor here felt far less absurd and everything in Early Man felt far more restrained, safe if you will. Not bad, but nothing particularly great either. The only jokes I remember after watching this movie a month ago were the most bizarre sequences in the film so they were easily able to stand out in my mind. And they definitely got a belly laugh from me, the rest of the stunts were not so much better than decent slapstick that doesn’t escape the gravitational pull of a regular Tom & Jerry joint. The dialogue itself is passable on a good day, which is a shame given the quality of voice talent the producers hired for this shinding.
Tom Hiddleston was able to let loose with a comical French accent, while Maisie Williams walked away with many of the film’s best lines. While Timothy Spall is usually great with what he’s given here, we don’t get to spend too much with any of these three voice actors. Instead, we follow Eddie Redmayne…who tends to be a double edged sword for me. Yes, I know he’s a talented actor, but when he’s told to act in a peculiar manner, well…he goes way overboard. And if he doesn’t lose his mind, he just annoys me instead. For Early Man, he gave such a subdued and boring performance that I can barely recognize his voice when everything was said and done. Again, he wasn’t given particularly good lines to mouth off, but you could have replaced his role with literally anyone and you could barely tell the difference.
As for the animation itself, it’s well done but again, hardly close to Aardma]nn’s best. Especially after Kubo and the Two Strings blew me away with demonstrating what could be done with stop motion animation, this production felt very average a level above something as insipid as Sherlock Gnomes, but practically light years away from even Dreamworks’ disjointed output. There’s still some artistry to admire here and there, but that’s really the only major positive point in the film’s favor.While slightly disappointing to me, I do it because I hold Aardman in very high regard for so many quality works over the years that I wish they wouldn’t go for something as easy and as obvious as a sports movie.
Still, I’ve forgiven films with even stranger animation before, and at least Aardman turned in something competent as opposed to lazy and rushed. Given the fact that practically nobody saw this in theaters, I really am not surprised the concept didn’t attract many people to come out for it. At the same time, it’s decent enough to entertain little, little kids, so I’ll give this a low…
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