In recent years, the idea of a new Aardman movie has been more delightful than the actual films. The celebrated animation house, which helped give the world the acclaimed Peter Gabriel video for “Sledgehammer” and Nick Park’s Oscar-winning, basically perfect Wallace and Gromit shorts, has struggled to make the transition to features. Recent entries such as Arthur Christmas, The Pirates! Band of Misfits and Shaun the Sheep Movie had their appeal, but the strategic simplicity of these films has also left them feeling a little slight. Each of them would have been dynamite at 25 minutes.
With Early Man, Park has made his first feature since 2005’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit—and his first non-Wallace and Gromit film since 2000’s Chicken Run—and it’s a sly, unexpectedly emotional comedy with lots of goofy laughs and the occasionally inspired bit of business. But fair or not, it’s hard not to compare this prehistoric laugher to Aardman’s (and Park’s) brilliant past. The wit, sweetness and handmade charm remain, but the ability to wow is less in evidence.
The stop-motion film introduces us to Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), a kindly caveman who thinks his tribe, led by Chief Bobnar (voiced by Timothy Spall), needs to stop settling for rabbits to hunt and instead go after bigger game. But their peaceful, albeit meager existence is interrupted by an invading Bronze Age army, which kicks them out of their valley homeland and condemns them to live in the inhospitable Badlands. As a way to return to the valley, Dug offers the Bronze Army’s snooty Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston) a deal: If his tribe can beat Nooth’s elite athletes in a soccer match, they can remain in the valley. If they lose, Dug and his friends will have to work in Nooth’s grueling mines.
Chicken Run, which Park co-directed with Aardman co-founder Peter Lord, succeeded in part because of its cheeky tweaking of the prison-breakout movie. Early Man cycles through a few genres—Park reportedly pitched the film as a mixture of Gladiator and Dodgeball—but it’s primarily an underdog sports movie, pitting our lovable losers against a superior squad, the whole film building to the finale’s big game.
Park packs Early Man with sight gags, slapstick and groan-worthy wordplay. (A lot of Dug’s fellow cavemen aren’t very bright, a fact that the filmmaker never tires of exploiting for comedic fodder.) It’s a gentle, relaxed film, lacking the hyperactive hipness of Hollywood animated movies or the sleek expertise of Pixar. But the relying on genre tropes both anchors and limits Early Man. Park smoothly pilots this film around and through certain narrative conventions—training-montage clichés are parodied, familiar sports-movie characters are rejiggered—and there’s a pleasing familiarity to the whole endeavor. But there’s also a ceiling to how funny or touching any of this is.
Part of the problem is that screenwriters Mark Burton and James Higginson (working from a story by Burton and Park) don’t fill the screen with many lively characters. Dug is a completely likable regular guy, but he’s a bit too anonymous to get very invested in. Because his tribe doesn’t know much about soccer—despite the fact that his ancestors, as shown in a funny prologue, invented the game—they need a tutorial, which comes in the form of a skillful Bronze resident named Goona (voiced by Maisie Williams) who isn’t allowed to play for her town because she’s a woman. Goona is easily more interesting than Dug—as is Nooth and Dug’s silent pal Hognob, a wild boor—but because Park centers the story around him, the stakes never rise very high.
Instead, Early Man leaves us with an enjoyable succession of jokes and some vague notions about the importance of friendship and believing in yourself. And throughout, there’s Aardman’s ace in the hole: its sweetly silly stop-motion protagonists with their bulging eyes and tombstone teeth. Lots of animated movies bank on the adorableness of their characters, but Early Man (like all Aardman films) can make you laugh simply through the endearing, fragile awkwardness of these people’s faces. There’s something lovably British about Aardman—not just because the studio is based in Bristol but because its films often have a nervous, offhand comedic modesty that’s expertly articulated through the imperfections of stop-motion animation. What’s consistently funny about Early Man is its characters’ discomfort—at being mocked, of saying the wrong thing, of losing the big match—which lends Park’s film a humanity and vulnerability that undercut the splashy razzle-dazzle of other, bigger-budgeted animated fare.
Those are the consolations one has to accept while watching Early Man, which won’t replace fond memories of A Close Shave or Chicken Run or Were-Rabbit, which all felt fresher and more vital than what’s on display here. Not unlike Laika, which also works tirelessly to craft old-school, low-frills animated movies, Aardman can sometimes let the care that goes into its meticulous productions outclass its stories. The world would be significantly poorer without an Aardman (or a Laika), but championing the existence of Early Man would be far more satisfying if it scaled greater heights. May the studio’s next Golden Age be just around the corner.
Director: Nick Park
Writers: Mark Burton and James Higginson (screenplay); Mark Burton and Nick Park (story)
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall
Release Date: February 16, 2018