Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Early Man

Aardman Animation, perhaps best known for their series of Wallace and Gromit shorts by Nick Park, is a studio unique for persisting in the Claymation style of stop-motion animation, particularly featuring plasticine characters. Though their main output consists of animated shorts, they have produced a handful of feature films, including, but not limited to, Chicken Run (2000), Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), Arthur Christmas (2011) and Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015). Though I had enjoyed many of their films in the past, I didn’t know how to feel about their most recent release, Early Man, based on previews. With theatrical showings rapidly dwindling, however, I went to see it while I still had the chance. Having finally seen it, I now better understand why audiences weren’t really flocking to it.

In prehistoric Earth, an asteroid impacts the surface and wipes out the dinosaurs, but spares a nearby tribe of cavemen, who invent soccer (consistently called football throughout the film) while kicking a ball-shaped chunk of the asteroid. Fast forward to the Stone Age and this same tribe now hunts rabbits in the valley for survival. One of the cavemen, Dug (Eddie Redmayne), wants to hunt mammoths instead, but Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) insists otherwise. Later, a Bronze Age army led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) drives the caveman out of the valley and into the nearby badlands. Dug seeks revenge, but unknowingly triggers a sequence of events which leads to him challenging Nooth’s best soccer team to a match with his tribe’s future on the line.

What unfolds is more or less the plot to a typical underdog sports movie. If you’re familiar at all with how that sort of movie works, then you have an idea of what to expect. The way Early Man executes this type of plot is entertaining, since it also injects a little Stone Age flavor and has some clever laugh-out-loud moments. However, it doesn’t leave a huge impact one way or another, just kind of somewhere in the middle. That said, the voice acting is pretty good overall, especially from Eddie Redmayne as Dug and Tom Hiddleston as Lord Nooth, the latter of whom plays a much sillier kind of villain than in the Marvel Studios films.

As with Aardman’s other features, the animation is a definite strong suit. The animation helps to capture the scale of each moment, including the crowd scenes that were undeniably difficult to animate in stop-motion and at least one moment where a giant prehistoric duck becomes larger as it enters the foreground. Animating a sport in stop-motion convincingly is also an achievement in and of itself. Notably, two dinosaurs, a Ceratosaurus and a Triceratops, at the very beginning of the movie are also animated in the style of the late Ray Harryhausen, a highly influential stop-motion animator.

Early Man is a good film, but not one of Aardman’s best. The clever writing and great animation don’t do enough to mask the predictable plot. It’s entertaining, but it’s obvious why it underperformed. Aardman fans are sure to find enjoyment in it, as would hardcore animation fans. As for everyone else, use your own judgment.

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