Aardman is one of the most beloved animation studios around. Their lighthearted stop-motion creations have captured the hearts of audiences around the world. At the heart of Aardman’s popularity is animator Nick Park, who created and directed all of the Wallace & Gromit films, in addition to directing Chicken Run and creating Shaun the Sheep. There’s probably only a handful of animators out there who have reached a similar level in both popularity and acclaim.
In 2018, Park directed Early Man, his first time in the director’s chair since the 2009 Wallace & Gromit short, A Matter of Loaf and Death, and his first full-length feature since Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005. With a pretty much unblemished record under Park’s belt up to that point, there was a good deal of anticipation surrounding Early Man before its release. That’s why it’s so disheartening that the final film is notably underwhelming.
To be fair, Early Man isn’t an outright bad movie, and the sheer herculean craftsmanship that Aardman puts into its plasticine creations always deserve praise. It’s just that the film ultimately ends up being just kind of okay, and unfortunately forgettable. And this coming from the creator of Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep? That kind of hurts.
As the title implies, Early Man is set in prehistoric times, where a tribe of cavemen live in a lush, green valley… surrounded by a volcanic wasteland. The tribe’s chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) leads his people in a simple life of rabbit hunting. But a young man in the tribe named Dug (Eddie Redmayne) wishes the tribe would branch out a bit and be more adventurous.
One day, out of the blue, a tribe of invaders – unlike any that Dug and his people have seen- make camp in the valley. These invaders come from beyond the wastelands, and have advanced into the Bronze Age while time left Dug and his people in the Stone Age. The invaders, lead by the greedy Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), have come to dig up the land in search of more bronze, unflinching to the plight they’re creating to Dug and his people.
Dug soon infiltrates the Bronze Aged people, and learns that much of their culture is built around football (or soccer, as us Americans call it, even though the soccer-type of football is the type of football where the player’s actually use their feet). When it looks like his people are going to be banished to live in the dangers of the wastelands, Dug makes a deal with Lord Nooth: his tribe will take on the Bronze people’s team in a game of football. If the cavemen win, they get to keep their valley. But if Nooth’s team wins, the cave people will be forced to slave away in a bronze mine for the rest of their lives (that’s a bit of a careless bet on Dug’s part, though he doesn’t quite seem to understand what that means when he makes the deal).
And so the stage is set for the cavemen to get an understanding of football so that they might have a fighting chance to keep their valley. Thankfully for them, a young woman of the bronze people named Goona (Maisie Williams) – who knows the game well but can’t play for her own tribe as Lord Nooth doesn’t allow girls to play – has sympathy for the cavemen’s plight, and wishes to join them and teach them the ins and outs of the game.
If you’re at all thrown off by the sudden emphasis of football (or soccer or whatever you want to call it) in a movie about cavepeople, well, you’re not alone. When the film was released, no one really expected this to be a sports movie (that aspect was completely omitted from its advertisements, at least in America). I mean, an animated sports picture that just so happens to take place in prehistoric times isn’t the worst idea out there. And to be fair, Early Man introduces the sport in its opening scene, with the ancestors of Dug’s people inadvertently inventing the game by kicking a recently-crashed meteorite, so it isn’t entirely out of the blue. But the sports aspect of the film seems to completely engulf everything else after a while, making the film’s prehistoric setting feel like a missed opportunity.
There is some fun to be had with Early Man: There’s the occasional joke that sticks the landing and brings a good laugh, the voice work is great (Hiddleston is a particular highlight, making Lord Nooth a snobby Frenchman), and of course, the painstaking work that goes into animating any stop-motion film – especially those with the attention to detail of Aardman – is always commendable. But by the time Early Man reaches its end you can’t help but feel like it could have, and should have, been more. Some of Nick Park’s shorts are ranked among the most acclaimed animated films of all time, while Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit were similarly praised as feature films. So for Nick Park’s third feature – and his comeback after a such a lengthy absence – to end up being just kind of okay is a stinging disappointment.
I do have to stress that Early Man is not a bad movie, but it falls short of many of Aardman’s other works, and considerably short of those that had Nick Park at the helm. It’s a visually pleasing, lighthearted entertainment. But this is one instance in which Aardman’s craftsmanship can only take them so far.