I am far from an expert on premiere animation studio Aardman but I'm an enthusiast -- at least for what I've seen. They are most known for their long-running series of shorts and features Wallace and Gromit, about an old man and his mischievous dog, which has won 3 Academy Awards [creator and director Nick Park has also won a fourth, for the 1989 short Creature Comforts]. Unfortunately, I've never seen a Wallace and Gromit film, but I have seen perhaps Aardman's most critically acclaimed film, Chicken Run, as well as the absolutely delightful Shaun the Sheep Movie [I was excited to see a trailer for a follow-up is coming soon].
Aardman's major filmmaker Nick Park has returned with Early Man, his first film since 2005's Oscar winning The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. With Early Man, he returns to his signature stop-motion claymation style and incessantly British humor [or should I say "humour"]. Now having seen three Aardman films, I can definitely see the style and narrative threads that give the studio its cohesive voice. Early Man, unfortunately, is my first Aardman experience that wasn't completely transportive.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the film was its marketing, which completely hid the major premise. Yes, Early Man is an animated comedy about our great-great-great-great-etc. ancestors and the primitive life they led. Now, what if I told you Early Man was an underdog sports tale? Weird, right?
Judging a film's marketing isn't the same as judging a film and the incomplete trailers don't have any bearing on the quality of the film. It does speak to the jumbled narrative of Early Man, however, which, by trying to do two very separate things [pre-historic comedy and soccer sports story] comes out flat on both ends.
This is far from a bad film. It certainly won't insult your intelligence like many studio animated films will these days. It is even fairly entertaining throughout. I expect kids will enjoy it, especially if they have any interest in soccer. It just isn't special in any way. I might be too tough on Early Man, but Aardman has earned the right to be held to a higher standard.
What it's about: Doug [voiced by Eddie Redmayne] is a caveman who dreams for his colony to be more than a simple rabbit hunters. The world is quickly evolving and soon invaders from the bronze age show up with their advanced weaponry and an interest in the untapped resources in this unexplored land. In order to win back their homeland, Doug challenges Lord Nooth [Tom Hiddleston] to a match with the bronze world's all-stars of football [yeah, soccer to us Americans]. Doug has a lot of work to train his less advanced community, but they may have a secret connection to the beautiful game.
The artistry is on display with beautiful environments and backdrops, from vast wastelands of volcanos and rock to grand architecture of the bronze civilization. This is the ambitious height of Ardman's work, even if the claymation effects have the same nostalgic look from decades ago.
The prehistoric elements of the film, particularly in the first act before the soccer story takes over, are sadly not very clever -- little alligators used as clothespins or lizards used as musical instruments, for example, don't really push past the limits of established elements made famous by The Flintstones. There was definitely an opportunity for more.
Similarly, there isn't much creativity in the sporting elements. They aren't anachronistic enough to be absurdly funny, though a bit where Rob Brydon plays too modern style commentators comes close. Otherwise, this is the straight-forward underdog journey you've seen many, many times and without any surprises.
We also get another sassy animal sidekick. Doug's hog pal is cute and all ... I'm just getting tired of this animated convention.
There is one very anachronistic element of the film, however: the pop music soundtrack. I get this is for the kids to have fun with, but it really feels out of place. Kaiser Chiefs' "I Predict a Riot" is a cool song, though.
Early Man comes in at a cool 89 minutes and it feels slight even at that. The quick and breezy nature is a sign of a story that moves along. It really is paper thin. I know this isn't truly the case, but it is like Early Man is made up entirely of four or five scenes. It is enough to tell a complete story, yet one that doesn't have much of a lasting effect.