Aardman Animations’ latest project, EARLY MAN, is a very familiar film. The trademark Aardman animation style helps separate this from other modern children’s movies like PADDINGTON or PETER RABBIT. But while the animation is pleasantly familiar, the story is familiar in a uninteresting way. The movie shares a look with projects like SHAUN THE SHEEP, but feels way less unique. EARLY MAN has some solid gags throughout, but the film itself is a bit bland.
EARLY MAN follows a struggling tribe of cavemen. Their simple rabbit-hunting ways are challenged by Bronze-loving Frenchmen, who want to mine the tribe’s valley. The solution – obviously – is to challenge the pompous jerks to a game of football (soccer, for American readers). From there, the story is fairly predictable – the novice team of cavemen train hard to take down the cocky football gods who play for villainous Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). How the story goes from there is so easy, even a caveman can see it coming.
The story of EARLY MAN is nothing all that groundbreaking. The soccer-centric story is a bit surprising, but once it kicks off, it’s standard play. From the training montage to the last minute substitutions, EARLY MAN follows the well-known formula. The movie’s predictable plays and turns nearly ruin its heart. That’s not to say that familiar stories can’t be good, but it does mean the film has little room for intrigue. It’s so similar to the plethora of sports movies that it’s hard to say what makes EARLY MAN worth watching.
The movie’s sense of humor also doesn’t yield a great product. EALRY MAN definitely has some of the smart wit and visual gags of other Aardman Animations projects. Unfortunately, the film is also chock-full of boring, downright cringey juvenile humor. There are lots of jokes about “balls” and “nuts” and “effeminate bad guys” throughout the movie. EARLY MAN is set in Prehistoric times, but has a early 2000’s adult comedy sense of humor. The fact that it’s a sports movie almost feels like such juvenile humor is unavoidable. Perhaps “balls” jokes are unavoidable when your movie is about football. There are some solid jokes along the way, of course, but they aren’t as present as one would hope.
While the material could use some work, the performances help sell it. Eddie Redmayne sells the heck out of Dug, the earnest young caveman desperate to help his people. Tom Hiddleston is almost unrecognizable as the voice of the greedy Lord Nooth. Maisie William doesn’t get a lot of screen time (or a consistent accent) but she is a welcome addition. The other assorted cavemen get even less screen time, but they are some of the best moments in EARLY MAN. It’s the hijinks of the cavemen that give this simple football movie its charm.
Ultimately, EARLY MAN isn’t the kind of classic seen that WALLACE & GROMIT or CHICKEN RUN is. The charm of the movie is hampered by the trademarks of lesser kids movies. The movie is on the verge of being another Aardman hit, but it doesn’t quite make the cut. If this is your kid’s first sports movie, maybe that’ll save the movie for you.
STAND-OUT PERFORMANCES: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Timothy Spall