In many ways Aardman Animation and director/innovator Nick Park have done for Claymation and British stop-motion animation in the last few decades, what Ray Harryhausen did for the art as a whole in earlier eras of cinema advancement. In the history of this filmmaking technique these names are heroes and their work is timeless, cherished and true poetry in (stop)motion. From Wallace & Gromit and Creature Comforts to Chicken Run and Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, this studio’s body of work is revered and consistent. So naturally expectations are high with every new project, let alone the first feature in nearly 15 years to be directed by Nick Park. Thankfully, Early Man is another win to scratch onto the Aardman slate.
Taking their own brand of British barminess to the prehistoric world, Early Man is set at the dawn of time – just outside Manchester – with an opening sequence (and a closing credit) that pays more than a little tribute to Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien’s dinosaur sequence in The Animal World, which starts us off in grand fashion. From there on what we have is an unexpected affectionate story of football culture in the binarily opposed times of early humanity. Some may (and have) been slightly disappointed at the chosen story and without doubt Early Man is less sophisticated in some of its humour and less broad in its audience reach and balance than, say, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit or Chicken Run, but for any issues with its plot or concept, there is still a tremendous amount of fun to be had.
Like Dreamworks/Aardman’s Flushed Away, this is an adventure that will keep kids entertained and older viewers will be equally delighted to see that the studio’s reliably witty references and eccentricities remain on display. For instance, what other film can boast a group of cavemen practicing football before being broken up by a giant razor-beaked mallard or a bath scene featuring a boar backrub? The craftsmanship in bringing this silly tale to life is equally as staggering as the moments of imagination, and once more Aardman show their mastery of clay and create an animated backdrop that is filled with life, ideas and warmth and a soundtrack dotted with some toe tapping numbers. Park treats football fans with a film they will love and non-fans can still be in-tune with it and whatever reservations you may have of the concept, it all works well under his ever excited watchful eye.
The cast are clearly having fun too, even if the best character is actually non-human, in the scene-nabbing Hognob (played by Park himself), Dug’s pet boar. Redmayne is really likable as Dug and the tribe themselves are filled with personality, with a fantastic cast featuring the vocal talents of Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade, Selina Griffiths, Mark Williams and Johnny Vegas. There are also some fun vocal turns by Rob Brydon and Miriam Margolyes as a messenger bird and Oofeefa (we see what you did there guys) respectively. While Maisie Williams’ go-getting Bronze Age City inhabitant Goona, breaks free of her gender confines and is a great role model for the movie. Best of the bunch though is an almost unrecognisable sounding Hiddleston, who makes for an utterly fabulous villain as the greedy and unscrupulous Lord Nooth!
There are laughs aplenty for the whole family with Early Man, which is an oddball prehistoric football caper that is not what was perhaps expected but still works really quite well. Olé Olé Olé Olé!