The downside to sustained success is the inevitable monkey of expectation. Try as one might, the more quality products a small studio. In that regard alone Early Man is something of a misstep. Though it’s a feature of extremely high quality, is endless inventive and sure to be adored by children, it also has one of the worst modifiers attached to it: “cute”. Which can be fine in small doses, just maybe not enough to sustain a film that’s limper than marshmallow fluff. It may seem delicious in the moment, but it won’t settle easily in your stomach.
Early Man opens with a bang. Literally. Long long ago a volcano exploded, wiping out the majority dinosaurs near modern day Manchester. With the blighting came two things: a large crater, and inside it, a molten rock, roughly the shape of a soccer ball. Well, exactly like a soccer ball, as the cavemen in the area end up creating the sport. This ends up having everything and nothing to do with the rest of the film, but it at least captures the spirit found in the early days of Aardman. It also features very little talking. Something the rest of the film could learn to adopt. Ocassionally, silence really is golden.
The majority of the tale takes place years in the future, as the crater has become a lush forest haven, smack dab in the middle of a barren, firely wasteland, dubbed “the bad lands”. This is a kids movie, the literal isn’t only welcomed, it’s often encouraged. The smartest among the valley’s tribe, Dug (a nasally Eddie Redmayne) wakes up every morning, hoping hat his cohorts will come to their senses and upgrade from hunting rabbits to mammoths. One day, while celebrating their daily catch, a strange armored caravan accidentally invades their village. Accidentally as they didn’t even realize that cavemen still exist. It turns out the bright and shiny folk are actually representatives of the neighboring Bronze Age city, who strangely are aware the crater is home to a large surplus of Bronze.
After stowing away in a cart, Dug gets to explore the might of the Bronze Age city and it’s denizens. For all of three minutes. That’s because just after he arrives in town, all the citizens head for the arena. What seems first as if it’s leading to Gladiatorial combat, ends up being a rousing game of soccer ball. Not only is it the city’s favorite pastime, it also allows it’s rule, Lord Nooth (a french-accented Tom Hiddleston) to get even richer. Dug makes a brave challenge against the city’s soccer team, with the winner gaining full ownership of the crater’s valley. What follows is the most formulaic of underdog stories. Replete with what seems to be 75 montages. Eat your hear out, Rocky!
Though the story is severely lacking, there’s actually many points worth praising. Chief among the successes is the glorious stop-motion animation. In a world where CGI reigns supreme and can be made relatively cheaply (depending on quality) this feels real. Detail is superb and it’s easy to get swept up by just how awe-inspiring everything looks. All of this is to be expected though, since it’s what the very foundation of the film studio was founded on. The only problem is that while Aardman is willing to rest just on it’s technical lorals, other studios like Laika, are succeeding in both visuals and narrative.
The incidental observations and humorous asides, long Park & co.’s bread and butter, serves the film better than the narrative beats. Animation flows freely, with gags flying as ferociously as an old Zucker Brothers film. Early Man has jokes and jokes and jokes. Yet that feeling of strung together vignettes also makes things long in the tooth early on (ha!). That’s not a confidence builder when the runtime is a paltry 85 minutes (the end credits are 10 minutes alone). Though exceptions will always be made for a giant murderous man-eating mallard.
Perhaps it’s a mistake in and of itself to judge Early Man based upon previous work, when it so fully buys into its own vision. This may not be the type of film many expected, but it stays true for the entire short run time. What’s difficult to shake is that ping of expectation. Were Aardman a studio that made only full features or just short films, this could be seen as a win. The problem comes in knowing they can (and have) excelled at both. Cut 20 minutes out of the film and it would just this side of perfect. As it stands now, this is a cute film, sure to delight children and Brits alike. There’s nothing wrong with that, in the end, but one does wish it had been something a bit more well rounded. Maybe next time.