It’s fittingly ironic that Early Man’s setting predates Aardman Animation’s other works by millions of years – the charm is still there, but their latest is nowhere near as evolved as their best.
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Millions of years ago, the meteor that should have wiped dinosaurs off the face of the earth instead crumbles, and lands as a small hot rock resembling a soccer ball, which the local Homo sapiens soon make a game out of. Flash forward a few generations, their descendant Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe of cavemen live peacefully in a valley as rabbit hunters. They’re soon forced out of their home and into the volcanic Badlands by a technologically advanced Bronze Age army led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), who plans to turn their valley into an industrial wasteland. Dug learns that soccer is an enormous attraction in Nooth’s city and challenges their top team to a match to win his tribe back their valley.
It seems as though some of the mightiest animation studios in the world have exposed their Achilles’ heel – the prehistoric. While Blue Sky and Fox hit gold with their Ice Age franchise that they’ve continued to mine (to varying quality), others have failed to match their primitive success. Most notable of these is Pixar, whose The Good Dinosaur ranks as perhaps their most cumbersome film. Fortunately, stop-motion machine Aardman Animations fare better with their ancestral trip in Early Man, but compared to their greatest hits – Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep – it’s a small fry.
After a decade’s absence, key Aardman figure Nick Park returns to directing duties, and at the very least he hasn’t lost his touch in bringing lumps of clay to vibrant and colourful life. The stop-motion charm is all there – you can now even make out the fingerprints on the clay in such high definition – and the trademark character models, all wide, toothy grins and beady eyes, are still delightfully endearing.
It’s a bit of a shame then, that for all its animated grandeur, Early Man’s story is dishearteningly standard. Departing from their usual search-and-rescue or break-out and escape genres, Aardman unexpectedly tackles the sports movie formula. Unfortunately, it’s not the inspired twist on this category like Chicken Run was to prison-break films; it simply follows exactly along the lines of a sports film without subverting it in any way. This means we see all the tropes, from the training montages and inspirational speeches, to the bunch of lovable underdogs defying the odds and the antagonist rigging the game in favour of the opposing team. But without any attempt to satirise these, it’s hard not to feel like there’s nothing new to see here.
This subgenre also limits potential for a broad appeal to audiences, particularly children who have little interest in soccer. While sports movies are designed to be accessible to anyone, even those unfamiliar with the game, it’s unlikely in this age where superhero and space blockbusters reign supreme that a kids’ film devoid of adventure will hold the attention of young ones. Outside of some subtle jokes that sports-fans will pick up, the insistence on childish slapstick means there’s not all that much for accompanying adults either.
That being said, there are still enough laughs and charm to be had that prevent Early Man from being a complete dud. The very British vocal talent fare well, particularly Tom Hiddleston as the pompous Lord Nooth, and animation enthusiasts have plenty to ogle at here. Just don’t expect as joyous and triumphant a time with clay we’ve grown accustomed to.
Early Man is available in Australian cinemas from March 29
Image courtesy of StudioCanal