Director: Nick Park
Screenplay: Mark Burton, James Higginson, Nick Park
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall
Country: UK, France, USA
Running Time: 89 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Nick Park is something of a British institution. He won an Oscar for his short stop-motion animated debut Creature Comforts and made another short the same year which introduced British audiences to two of their most beloved animated characters, Wallace and Gromit. The short was called A Grand Day Out and proved even more successful than his debut. He followed it up with two more Wallace and Gromit shorts, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave (which introduced another much loved character, Shaun the Sheep), which both went on to win Oscars for Best Animated Short. Shown accepting his awards with increasingly garish bow ties, he became a household name and at the turn of the 21st Century he progressed to feature film making, not with Wallace and Gromit, but with Chicken Run, a spoof of classic prison escape movies. This was well received, but maybe didn’t strike gold quite in the same way his shorts did. He caved into popular demand for his next film though, when he finally brought Wallace and Gromit to the big screen in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. It, as suspected, was a huge success and, yes, won him another Oscar (the Academy do love him). That was way back in 2005 though, and, other than another W&G short, A Matter of Loaf and Death, Park hasn’t directed another film. The company he’s worked for since 1985, Aardman Animations, have made a few in the meantime and he’s produced some of these, but none have proved as successful as his previous classics. 2018 finally sees Park back in the director’s chair though with his much publicised feature animation, Early Man.
Early Man is, as you might have guessed from the title, set at the dawn of time, when human civilisation was in its infancy. We follow a peaceful tribe of cavemen who amble through their simple existence, hunting rabbits for the most part. Young Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) is fed up of this and longs for something bigger. Something bigger certainly comes along when the tribe comes face to face with Bronze Age man. As their village is sat on a rich source of ore, Bronze Age nobleman Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) kicks the tribe out of their homes, sending them to the wastelands. Dug won’t give in though and sneaks in to the Bronze Age city to see what he can do. There he stumbles upon an unusual and hugely popular sport enjoyed by the inhabitants, called football (soccer to the Yanks among you). Dug also learns that anyone can challenge the city’s leading team, so he puts his tribe forward as competitors, with a request that if they win, they can have their village back. Knowing that the tribe know nothing about football and the game would attract a huge crowd, Nooth accepts the challenge. Dug has faith in his friends though and sets about training his motley crew in the art of the beautiful game, assisted by the greatly skilled Bronze Age girl Gonna (Maisie Williams) who isn’t allowed to play for her city due to her sex.
So, as you might expect from that setup, Early Man is a sports movie, very much in the mould of Escape to Victory or Rocky. This surprised me as the football aspects were played down in the trailer, but I went along with it and had a lot of fun in the process. It doesn’t quite hit the highs of the Wallace and Gromit films though it must be said. In following the typical sports movie format, it’s very predictable with a rather uninspired story. I guess you could argue that all of Park’s films make a point of being based on specific genre movies, particularly genres loved by us Brits, but here the film doesn’t seem to play with the tropes quite as cleverly, instead just following the cliches wholeheartedly.
There is still plenty of that very British Aardman charm on display though, with good natured humour to please all ages. A couple of fart and burp gags lower the tone here and there, but for the most part the jokes come from good old fashioned wordplay and visual gags about the period. As such, it’s hard to dislike the film, even if it isn’t Aardman’s finest hour and a half.
As Aardman has found with most of it’s non-Wallace and Gromit creations, it hasn’t quite found another character or characters that are going to live in our memories quite as long as the cheese-loving chap and his faithful dog. Hiddlestone has fun as the villain though and I enjoyed Dug’s faithful warthog Hognob. In fact both of these characters feature in the film’s funniest scene, where there’s a classic case of mistaken identity that Hognob goes along with.
As is expected from Park and Aardman, the stop-motion animation is first rate and it looks very pretty with lovingly crafted and detailed sets and backdrops. It's nice to see them turn their hands to a very different setting too, even if the character styles look familiar.
So Early Man is still finely made and enjoyable family fare, even if it stands in the formidable shadow of Aardman’s most famous work. It’s one of the best football films I’ve seen too (if that’s saying anything), so will make a good watch during World Cup season. The generic nature of the story is a little disappointing and the jokes aren’t quite as sharp as they could be, but it’s well worth a watch nonetheless.
Early Man is out today on digital download and on Blu-Ray, 4K Ultra HD & DVD in the UK, released by Studiocanal. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks and sounds fantastic.
There are quite a lot of special features included too. Theses are as follows:
- Audio Commentary by Nick Park and editor Sim Evans-Jones
- Birth of Early Man
- Evolution of Early Man
- Match of the Clay
- Nick Park: Massaging the Funny
- The Valley Meets the Bronze
- Hanging at Aardman Studios: A Workshop Experience
- Before the Beginning of Time: Crafting Early Man