Aardman’s Primeval Disappointment
There’s no doubt one of the most influential names in stop-motion animation is Nick Park. Likewise the studio he works for, Aardman Animations, has played a major part in bringing the art form to the west. However this hands-on sub-genre has evolved since Wallace & Gromit’s plasticine adventures delighted us in the early 1990s. With its innovative techniques and boundless creativity, Laika has become the new standard for stop-motion animation. And nothing reminds me of that more than seeing Park’s latest film Early Man, which seems starkly behind the times.
This is a very weird movie, which is saying a lot for Aardman. And unlike something like The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, that weirdness doesn’t work in its favour.
A tribe of Stone Age primitives enjoy a peaceful existence living in a valley hunting rabbits until a Bronze Age army takes over their land forcing them out to the dangerous badlands. However, one young caveman called Dug (Eddie Redmayne) manages to sneak into the Bronze city where he becomes enamoured with the game their society revolves around, football. He strikes a deal with the local Bronze Lord (an unrecognisable Tom Hiddleston) that if the cavemen win a football match they’ll be given their valley back. So he has to train his hopeless tribe in the new sport so they can have a chance of beating the much more experienced Bronze team.
This premise of two ages of civilization existing simultaneously and their survival being dependent on a football match is, of course, ludicrous. But that’s pretty usual fare for this studio. The problem is the story, which is so unoriginal that it highlights the holes in this strange set-up. It’s an underdog sports movie with no twists or unique spins, and because of that, it’s awfully dull to sit through. Every beat is struck, every character motive contrived. This might have been an interesting world to see, but its so confined and underdeveloped. The Bronze city for instance (which seems to be in Mordor) has a few creative elements, but everything we see of this place is directly focussed on football. And the creativity in general is just off. There are some neat ideas, visuals, and jokes, but that’s all they really are: neat.
Probably this movie’s biggest failing is its comedy. The Aardman films usually have that great dry British sense of humour to them, but for whatever reason most of the jokes and comedy bits don’t work here. There are funny moments now and then (particularly one involving a duck), and clearly some gags that are purely aiming for the child audience, but even those seem a little lazy. A lot of the dialogue jokes and routines are pretty bad, and a few are real groaners. And then there are some that just make no sense, like a running gag involving Dug’s pet boar wanting to play, the pay-off for which is astoundingly underwhelming. None of the humour here is clever or unique or even all that surreal, which you’d think it would be given this environment. And a lot of the comedy is built around Bronze Age equivalents of modern conventions, appliances, and concepts; but those kind of jokes have been around since The Flintstones -which did them better. Hell, Shrek did that joke way better, and, at least in the first two movies, used it as a means of great satire! What’s painful about this is that humour has always been Aardman’s strength, it’s best movies having had superb comedic writing. Again, The Pirates! is also a strange, nonsensical movie, but it’s really funny.
The cast of this film try their hardest with the material though. Redmayne manages okay, as does Timothy Spall as his tribe chief. Maisie Williams plays a Bronze Age girl who coaches the cavemen and of course has a dream of playing herself. Her character especially feels like an indicator this movie is a few decades behind, not only because the tomboy player was a trope of ‘90s sports movies, but also because the sexism around her being able to play is very blunt and lazily defined. There’s some talent in the supporting cast from Richard Ayoade, Miriam Margolyes, Mark Williams, and Rob Brydon voicing a slew of characters. Even some notable comedians make appearances like Gina Yashere, Kayvan Novak, and Johnny Vegas. But yet the strangest choice remains Tom Hiddleston as an over-the-top greedy villain (who’s French for no reason) and has a design so basic I’m sure I’ve seen it in some Wallace & Gromit short or Chicken Run.
Of all the Aardman movies, Early Man is the only one I haven’t enjoyed on some level. Nick Park is a great animator, but I’d like to see the company branch out a little more. For a studio that built its name in stop-motion animation, it’s ironic that it’s best movies have been the two computer animated ones: Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas. Maybe that direction would be worth taking again. But until that time, I’m sure Early Man will become a forgotten piece of their varied filmography.