Nick Park, creator of Wallace & Gromit and the man behind the underrated Chicken Run, returns with Aardman Animation in their latest effort, the prehistoric comedy Early Man. Park’s trademark character designs and stop-motion animation – his medium of choice – are back in full force as Park and his crew deign to stand tall against the modern animation styling of computer generated graphics. At the same time, hopes are high that the attempt at counterprogramming against Marvel’s Black Panther results in some spillover business (“Dang, Black Panther is sold out. Let’s go see Early Man, then.”) and a boost in ticket sales.
Set during the transition from the stone age into the bronze age, Early Man tells the story of caveman Dug (Eddie Redmayne), who works to unite his fellow caveperson brethren in order to save his home from the evil tyrannical leader of a more technologically advanced civilization responsible for propelling humanity forward and hoping to leave Dug and his friends in the distant past. So, Dug sets out to win freedom for himself and his loved ones by . . . winning a game of soccer?
Okay, so the narrative is a bit odd, but the first shot of the film shows dinosaurs and man cohabiting the earth, so reality is tossed right out the window from the very start. And I’m not bothered by “odd”, anyway. Unfortunately, said narrative is also a bit dull. The idea is fine. Any idea can work with the proper execution. But, here, the execution is just a bit off. The culprit is primarily the pacing, as it takes a long time to get to the hook, even though the film only runs a bit over ninety minutes long, including credits. But the film is also largely uneventful until the big climax finally arrives, causing the film to feel as if the story contains a beginning and an ending but no middle. To compound the issues, the humor almost entirely falls flat, mostly due to the fact that the majority of it is derivative, having been done before in a copious amount of other films.
It’s not a total loss, as the movie has its moments. I’d be lying if I said that the film didn’t get a few chuckles out of me (there’s one particularly amusing gag involving a duck that I won’t elaborate on any further, and Nick Park’s Hognob is consistently amusing), but in a film that’s marketed as a comedy, “a few chuckles” just aren’t enough. As has become common in recent years, the funniest films often tend to be those that aren’t advertised as such, whereas films such as this one, whose primary goal is to elicit laughter, struggle to find even minimal success. I appreciated the few moments that I got, but I wanted more than just those few sprinkled amongst stereotypical slapstick and one-liners that originated decades ago.
I will say that I enjoyed the characters as well as the voice actors who bring them to life. Dug, Goona (Maisie Williams), Hognob and the others are endearing, charming, and even lovable, making it difficult to outright dislike the film. Even when rolling one’s eyes at their jokes, their sweet smiles and sincere hearts are rather irresistible. Kudos to Aardman for pulling that off. But they didn’t do it alone. The studio pulled out all the stops in procuring their cast, with Redmayne and Williams being joined by Tom Hiddleston. I had to remind myself during my viewing that these huge stars were the voices I was hearing, as they were unrecognizable while still managing to fully invest in their roles.
I also found it quite refreshing to see some classic stop-motion animation again. It’s not smooth. It’s not sleek. It’s not shiny. It’s not sexy. But it’s art. And it’s beautiful in its own way. While not quite up to the level of the recent efforts from Laika, the studio behind the instant classic Kubo and the Two Strings, stop-motion animation is still an impressive accomplishment, regardless of the perceived shortcomings. It lends an old-school, palpable feel to the film and contributes a much-needed kick to the energy level in the face of a narrative that doesn’t quite get the job done.
I think I’m more disappointed in the fact that I’m not wild about Early Man than I am in the film itself. The movie is not without its charms, but it’s also lacking the wit and bite that I was hoping to find as I sat down at the theater. Most people seem to enjoy it more than I did, though, and I’m happy about that. I want the film to do well. I didn’t outright hate it, and even if I had, there should still be room for more traditional forms of animation to succeed. Even if the movie doesn’t fire on all cylinders for me, personally, it’s an earnest effort from the filmmakers and the love they poured into it shows. So, even though I’m not totally crazy about the film, if you had an interest in it, I hope you still go and see it. Maybe you’ll fall in line with the majority and thoroughly enjoy yourself. For your sake, the film’s sake, and the medium’s sake, I truly hope you do.
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