When it comes to quality animation Pixar, Disney, Laika and Studio Ghibli top the list. Aardman Animations can join those studios, and it is often a treat to see one of their films, including their new release Early Man.
Dug (Eddie Redmayne) is a member of a small Stone Age tribe in a lush forest valley. Yet Dug dreams of more than hunting rabbits: he wants to hunt mammoths!
The tribe ends up kicked off their land by a more advanced group of men led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) and when Dug follows these Bronze Age people back to their city he discovers they play the most beautiful game. To win back their valley, the Early Man tribe have to play against the Bronze Age people in a game of football.
Aardman has a distinctive artistic style and is one of the few studios to continue using stop-motion animation. Their films take a long time to make which explains why their filmography is so thin: they have only been making six feature films since 2000. But that is a part of the charm of their work, the use of stop-motion means there is a lot of detail in the art direction, and their films are often packed with jokes. Aardman are masters of visual jokes, and there is no let-up: my personal favorite involves the giant foam fingers. Because of the stone-age setting, Early Man does share some similarities with The Flintstones – mainly the use of animals as appliances.
Aardman also revels in their Britishness – films like Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit and Curse of the Were-Rabbit and The Pirates! Band of Misfits! (or The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! in the UK). Early Man makes even less effort to cater to American audiences: the whole cast is British and the big names (Redmayne, Hiddleston and Maisie Williams) voices’ are unrecognizable. The use of football (or soccer as it is incorrectly called in some parts of the world) allows for a lot of jokes about the Premier League, how players for a big team are overpaid prima donnas and having a dig against players who dive to get penalty kicks. Kids can easily relate to the scene when the tribe accidentally kick their ball next door. There are jokes and reference which only audiences from the British Isles will get like one of the commentators being dressed like John Motson.
Early Man can be described as Asterix meets Escape to Victory. Like Asterix, the tribe in Early Man is a more primitive society who get dominated by a more advanced civilization, and it’s up to a plucky hero and his pet (in Early Man‘s case a warthog) to save his person, while in Escape to Victory everything depends on a game of football. However, because of the use of football the finale of Early Man is not as thrilling as other Aardman films: the chickens made a flying machine to escape their coop and being turned into pies: Gromit had to prevent Lord Quartermaine killing Wallace as a were-rabbit, and the pirates had to fight Queen Victoria’s steampunk robot. The tribe is playing for their home and freedom, and director Nick Park has a love for sport but considering Early Man has a traditional sports comedy narrative it is easy to predict what’s going to happen, which is even more disappointing because Aardman often throws a curveball.
Aardman films in the past have jokes and references for adults (one of my personal favorites being the nun wrestling magazine), and like Pixar, there are heartfelt moments. However, Early Man‘s is more geared towards younger audiences. There is more reliance on physical humor, and there is much use of toilet humor – more than usual in an Aardman film. Aardman has often been above this type of humor, and their films and TV shows have been able to please all demographics. The most adult jokes revolved around one of the tribe members liking young men
Hiddleston was the highlight of the cast. He is a man who has specialized playing villains, and in Early Man, he spoke with an exaggerated French accent – us Brits like nothing better than making fun of the French. Hiddleston role as Nooth was similar to how he played Loki in Thor: Raganok – Nooth was more a comic foil than a serious threat – his only real concern is making money, and he more often gets humiliated. Hiddleston was hilarious in his role.
Redmayne sounded appropriately wide-eyed, youthful and idealistic as the hero of the piece while Williams was okay as Goona, a young bronze age woman who longs to play in front of thousands of fans. The rest of the cast mostly comprised of British comedians like Johnny Vegas, Rob Brydon, Richard Ayoade and Gina Yashere who were fine in their roles: they were all playing one-note characters.
Early Man does not match the heights of most of Aardman’s previous work, but it better than their previous football-themed film Flushed Away. Early Man is still a funny film and fans of the beautiful game will greatly appreciate it.