Early Man (2018) Review

BEND IT LIKE A CAVEMAN!


 

There’s been many styles of animation that many powerhouse studios have utilized over the years when crafting a cartoon animated feature film. While 2-D (two-dimensional) was one of the earliest and had the most longevity within the animation genre, 3-D (three-dimensional rendering) through computer animation has been the latest and greatest usage of bring animated characters (and their world) to life through a cartoon motion picture. However, the usage of clay animation (a form of stop-motion animation) has been utilized and proven to be effective in cartoon storytelling. One particular studio of this unique style of animation is Aardman Animations. This British based animation studio has proven to have several clay animated movies, including Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the WereRabbit, and Shaun the Sheep the Movie. Additionally, the company has dabbled into the art of computer-rendering animation with like Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas. For most part, Aardman Animations, while not outpacing animated juggernauts Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks, has still generated mostly positive reviews (on average) for their animated features as well as grossing nearly $ 1 billion dollars revenue for their films (altogether). Now, Aardman Animations (as well as BFI and StudioCanal) and director Nick Park present the newest clay animation project with the movie Early Man. Does this latest stop-motion animation endeavor worth a glance or should it be sent by to the pre-historic stone age?

The new film from Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park is a prehistoric romp

THE STORY


During Earth’s early days of history, a tribe of Stone Age cavemen led by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) spend their days hunting rabbits for food in the tranquil and lush valley. One of members of the tribe, Dug (Eddie Redmayne), desires to hunt something bigger (i.e. like a mammoth), but Chief dismisses the notion, believing that their simplistic tribe is better suited to hunting rabbits. Chief’s reasons are cemented through cave painting of their ancestors hunting down small round creatures, which serves as a daily reminder to all of what their purpose is. One day, however, the tribe’s blissful existence is disrupted by the arrival of a Bronze Age army led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), who drives the cavemen out of their peaceful valley and into the badlands while he mines the area for more bronze. During his attempt to fight back, Dug is unknowingly taken to the Bronze Age city and finds himself mistakenly partaking in a soccer game with the city’s finest athletes, which is overseen by Lord Nooth. Realizing the cave paintings were his ancestors inventing the sport of football, Dug strikes a deal with Nooth: if Dug’s Stone Age team wins, they will get their valley back. If they lose, they will have to work in the mines forever. With the help of Bronze Age citizen Goona (Maisie Williams), Dug tries to coach his friends in the fundamentals of playing soccer, but he quickly finds out that it’s much harder than it looks.

Little known historical fact: Manic pixie dream girls have been around since the Bronze Age.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Being a fan of animated films, I’ve always enjoyed watching all the various types of animated features being released. Every year, new films showcases some talented animated movies from a wide range of studios. Some big and popular with the latest and greatest technology at their disposal (i.e. Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Illumination Entertainment, etc.) and some just mediocre. Boggling the mind on how certain animated endeavors were ever greenlit. In amongst those two extreme viewpoints lies Aardman Animations, which primary focuses on it’s clay animation cartoon shorts and full-length features. I do remember seeing a few of the studio’s Wallace & Gromit shorts a few years as well as some Shaun the Sheep ones. That being said, I remember seeing Chicken Run (roughly around the time of its release) as well as Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit when it was released on home video. I did miss seeing Aardman Animation’s two computer-generated feature films, which were Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas. From what I heard (from word-of-mouth), I heard that Flushed Away was good and that Arthur Christmas was pretty “meh”. Still, I do applaud Aardman Animations for continuing their trend of using clay animation, which almost like “lost art” in animation in this age 3D computer rendered projects.

This, of course, bring me to the present for Aardman Animation’s latest animated feature Early Man. To be honest, I really don’t remember hearing much about this movie being released, with the exception of the film’s trailers and other various TV spots. As I stated, I’ve seeing several of Aardman Animations films and was curious to see how this would ultimately stacked up against a lot of the recent animated films out there. So, I took a chance and went to see it before the movie got pushed out at my local theater. What did I think of it? Well, I didn’t hate it, but neither did I really think it was really good. Early Man, while boasting a strong technical presentation, solid voice acting, and colorful visuals, lacks substance within its weak narrative.

Early Man is directed by Nick Park, whose previous directorial works include several other Aardman Animations including Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit as well as working several Aardman Animation projects (films and shorts) as a writer. Given his background history with this animated studio, Park seems like a natural fit to direct Early Man. Effectively, Park does so, comprising a narrative that finds a comical heart within its pre-historic scenario. Coinciding with that, Park makes the film very much like the rest of the Aardman Animation’s projects. Unlike several other clay or stop-motion animated films (several of Tim Burton’s ones or even Laika Studios films), Early Man keeps up the sensibility and lightheartedness from past Aardman Animation endeavors, marking the film an enjoyable and breezy viewing experience that’s quite accessible for all ages (both old and young). Adding to that, the film’s humor is also a highlight, with many comical jokes and gags (some sight gags are pretty funny) peppered throughout the movie, which helps some of the film’s goofier moments for some lighthearted fun. Interestingly, Park present a somewhat interesting pitch in the movie by having Dug and his Stone Age cavemen battle against members of the Bronze Age. However, it’s not in the traditional way, but rather playing a game of soccer. I know right…. pre-historic soccer? Sounds bizarre. Naturally, while the whole football (aka soccer) competition is a bit odd and jarring, it works (for the most part), making Early Man’s journey fairly entertaining as well as learning a mortality lesson of teamwork for the sports fans out there as well as young viewers.

In terms of presentation and animation technicalities, Early Man is quite impressive. While most major movie studios use 3D animation, the movie (being under the Aardman Animation company) utilizes its visual flair of clay animation (in stop-motion animation) to tell its story. I have to say that while this style is old, Early Man certainly does looks impressive. The amount of attention to detail is commendable as Park’s insight into this animation gives the film a boost, approaching it with the same love and care as other Aardman Animation projects. Additionally, the scope of it all from the small jungle-like sanctuary of Dug’s tribe home to the more civilized world of the Bronze Age city juxtaposes the ideals as well as the immersive world that Park and his team want to convey within the movie. I kind of wished we saw more of Bronze Age city. Thus, everyone on the art department, production designer Matt Perry (and his team), and film editor Sim Evan Jones, and cinematographers Charles Copping, Dave Alex Riddett, Paul Smith, and Peter Sorg (phew…that’s a lot of cinematographers for one movie) should be applauded for their efforts in making Early Man impressive in detail, animation, and in scale. Lastly, the film’s score, composed by Harry Gregson-Williams and Tom Howe, is pretty good, with many lighthearted melodies and orchestral nuances to give Early Man the right amount of background music throughout its proceedings.

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However, Early Man does have some shortcomings, with the biggest of them all is the film’s thinly written script. Penned by Mark Burton and James Higginson (the story was written by both Burton and Park), the movie’s initial set-up and premise is uniquely fun (especially using the whole pre-historic age nuances and clash with an advanced civilization against a more primitive one) as well as some humorous based jokes and gags, but the film’s screenplay definitely has a lack of substance and depth within the narrative. This, of course, makes Early Man’s narrative pretty basic, stripped of a lot of depth and character building (more on the below). Additionally, once the main plot gets underway of an underdog sports comedy troupe (think of something along the lines of 1996’s Space Jam), it’s pretty much a paint-by-numbers story progression, following a formulaic and predictable trajectory that many viewers can see coming before plot points / events happen. Because of this, a lot of its creative world building setup gets dismiss, choosing to play a hand at a tried and true narrative scenario (i.e. not a whole lot of Stone Age vs. Bronze Age aspect, but rather a soccer game between the “underdogs” and the “undefeated”). Could Early Man have been different if there was some type of unique twist or something that played out different from this well-trodden storyline path? Yes, but Park (along with Burton and Higginson) sort of play it safe and follow something that’s proven to work rather than making some creative and bold choice. To be honest, I was a bit upset that the movie didn’t follow more of the lines of a pre-historic adventure and ended up utilizing more of the sports aspect.

The voice talent cast in Early Man is another highlight of the feature, with many vocal works being done by recognizable names from individual actors and actresses from various British projects (be it film or TV). Headlining the feature is actor Eddie Redmayne and actor Tom Hiddleston, who both play the protagonist (Dug) and antagonist (Lord Nooth) respectfully. Redmayne, known for his roles in The Danish Girl, Theory of Everything, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, provides the right amount of earnest and warmth when voicing Dug, giving the character a sense of wonderment and sincerity, which makes the character easy to root for in the movie. It’s not really anything new or original to the character of Dug, but Redmayne provides enough of natural sweetness within the character. Likewise, Hiddleston, known for his roles in the MCU’s Thor movies as well as Crimson Peak and The Night Manager, is probably the movie’s scene stealer as the nefariously greedy (and goofy) Lord Nooth. Hiddleston seems to be having fun in the role, jumping into providing a goofy sounding voice and definitely chews threw his dialogue in every scene, giving Early Man that classic over-the-top bad guy, which works. Definitely one of the best characters in all of the film.

Beyond Dug and Lord Nooth, majority of the Early Man cast of characters are underserved. Don’t get me wrong, all the voice talents are solid, but their characteristics and overall well-roundness are largely one-dimensional. Of these supporting players, two characters do standout. The first being is Chief Bobnar, the leader of Dug’s caveman tribe, who is voiced by actor Timothy Spall (Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Enchanted). While voiced finely by Spall, the character is your classic leader / mentor / fatherly figure to young Dug. However, he does stand out in the film. The same can be said for the character of Goona, the Bronze Age girl who help Dug and his caveman brethren. Voiced by Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones and The Book of Love), the character of Goona is a nice fit to this mostly male ensemble of Early Man characters, but she really isn’t defined in the film beyond her initial set-up, which is a bit disappointing.

Dug’s fellow tribe members (i.e. the other Stone Age cavemen), far much less as they (collectively) are given unique trait or running gag to make them stand out. However, the voice works are pretty good, including Rob Brydon (Human Remains and Marion & Geoff) who provides the voices for Brian and Bryan (as well as the voice for the Message Bird), actor Johnny Vegas (Wombie Movie and Grimsby) as Asbo, actor Simon Greenall (We Need to Talk about Kevin and Alan Partridge) as Eemak and Thongo, actress Gina Yashere (Married Single Other and Bromwell High) as Gravelle, actor Richard Ayoade (The It Crowd and The Watch) as Treebor, actress Selina Griffiths (The Smoking Room and Cuckoo) as Magma, and Mark Williams (Father Brown and Shakespeare in Love) as Barry. While Dug and Lord Nooth gets the most screen-time, it would be beneficial for these characters to have a bit more depth and character substance, especially when the narrative (being told) is about togetherness and unity amongst a group. Other noteworthy side / supporting characters includes actress Miriam Margoyles (Rome + Juliet and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) as Queen Oofeefa (the ruler of the Bronze Age civilization) and the character Hognob, a humorous animal sidekick character companion to (Nick Park provides the incoherent noises for Hognob).

FINAL THOUGHTS


Get ready for the football soccer match for the “Ages” (Stone vs. Bronze) in the movie Early Man. Director Nick Park’s newest film weaves a bizarre (yet humorous) pre-historic underdog sports premise that works and makes for an amusing animated kid’s flick. While story lacks substance and does follow into a predictable (if not cliché) narrative path, the film boasts a solid voice acting and its clay (stop-motion) animation as well as humorous kid comedy tone that many Aardman Animations will thoroughly enjoy. Personally, I thought this movie was fairly good It wasn’t incredible awesome, but neither was it a terrible and disappointing animated endeavor. Early Man just lies somewhere in-between, but more so on the positive side than the negative one. Thus, I would give this movie my recommended stamp of approval as the feature is a harmless and fluff cartoon piece that many will like and find amusing through some of its different aspects (underdog sports story, pre-historic set-up, clay animation fans, humorous kids flick, etc.). In the end, Early Man has a solid visual flair within its context, weaving a familiar journey that’s still entertaining (albert not entirely original) into a clay animated feature film. The movie may not beat out any 3D computer-generated films from Disney, Pixar, or Illumination Entertainment, but Early Man is still impressive for its humor, style, and sincere gesture in this “grandfather” art form of animation filmmaking.

3.4 Out of 5 (Recommended)

 

Released On: February 16th, 2018
Reviewed On: March 16th, 2018

Early Man is 89 minutes long and is rated PG for rude humor and some action

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