With CGI as prevalent and accessible as it is today, any animation studio that still specialises in stop-motion animation has to be doing it out of sheer love for the form and how the handcrafted characters can bring a story to life. Aardman studios, the British company behind beloved figures like Wallace and Gromit, exemplify this approach through the charm and distinctive humour they bring to each of their films, from Chicken Run to Early Man. It is director Nick Park’s love of football in particular that carries Early Man, a film that is so British that it suggests much of mankind’s development stems from playing soccer.
After a disarmingly cute opening where the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs is turned into the first soccer ball by a group of confused caveman, Early Man jumps forward to the dawn of the Bronze Age. Our protagonist, Dug (Eddie Redmayne), is a young caveman living in a tribe under the rule of chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) within a forest valley surrounded by “The Badlands” – a rocky and volcanic area that visually resembles the land of Mordor from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. When the villainous Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) invades their land and declares the dawning of the Bronze Age, Dug and his pack must find a way to compete with the more advanced force or else be exiled into the badlands forever. The concept of a clash between characters from the Stone Age and the Bronze Age is rife with comedic potential, and indeed initial scenes of Early Man demonstrate Aardman’s well-established blend of sight gags and wordplay as Dug jumps between the two worlds. It’s when Dug challenges Nooth’s celebrated soccer team to a match for their land that the focus of the film turns too narrow, turning into a fairly standard underdog sports movie within an admittedly different setting. Whereas films like Chicken Run or Curse of the WereRabbit thrived on accessible stories that had almost universal appeal, I felt that in order to fully appreciate Early Man one would have to be a die-hard soccer fanatic. That’s not to say I didn’t find moments entertaining despite my lack of interest in the game, but more that I found it frustratingly specific in its execution of an exciting premise.
Like most of Park’s protagonists Dug is delightfully cute and earnest, voiced with just the right amount of sincerity from Redmayne as he leads a cast of notable British actors and comedians such as Richard Ayoade, Rob Brydon, and Miriam Margolyes. Tom Hiddleston’s bizarre French accent as Nooth is less appreciated, never quite fitting the world of the film and turning what could have been a smarmy love-to-hate villain into one that’s just annoying. Maisie Williams favours much better as Goona, a soccer player from the Bronze Age who comes to help Dug out due to not being able to join Nooth’s all-male team, but her role largely divulges into pushing every clichéd training montage and sports trope onto Early Man as the cavemen train for their climactic match.
Despite my initial enjoyment with Early Man the more it progressed the more predictable I found it to be, and the more tiring I found the potty humour and puns. There was just enough cleverness to keep me from dropping into out-right dislike, with a Manchester United pun towards the end that was so meticulously crafted that I have to give the screenwriters credit, and an always appreciated appearance by a giant monster duck, but as a fan of Aardman’s earlier works I’ll admit to coming away disappointed. It’s possible I just wasn’t the right audience for Early Man, but it’s hard imagining who the right audience is for a stop-motion children’s film about soccer-playing cavemen.
3 and a half stars.