Cinematic Releases: Early Man (2018) - Reviewed

Whenever Aardman Animations’s Nick Park is involved in a project, the outcome is going to be ridiculous, adorable fun – and the newest clay stop-motion animated feature from the studio, Early Man, is precisely that. Pitting a crew of Stone Age cavepeople against a strangely advanced Bronze Age city and its greedy, buffoonish leader in a fight for the tribe’s home valley in (of all things) a game of soccer, this is a comedy-adventure film to delight the entire family. 

Early Man doesn’t carry the emotional weight of Aardman’s Chicken Run, and it is not as irreverent or clever as its Wallace and Gromit films. It sits squarely between these, with a cast of likable characters and a lighthearted story with low enough stakes to keep things fun throughout. 

Physical comedy and lots of shrewd little details have always been a hallmark of Nick Park’s films, and with a premise as delightfully absurd as Early Man’s, they work perfectly. Dug’s (Eddie Redmayne) Stone Age tribe attempts to learn the game of soccer – which their people invented generations earlier – in hopes to win back their home from pampered Bronze Age fat-cat Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), who wants to turn the valley into a mine so he can increase his wealth and banish the more technologically primitive tribe to the badlands beyond it. Dug, desperate to help his family, strikes a deal with the petty Lord – he and his people will play for the rights to the valley, and will become slaves to Nooth’s mine should they lose. 

But Dug has his work cut out for him, of course, as his tribe essentially consists of goofy oddballs who have no idea what they’re doing when not living simple, peaceful lives and hunting rabbits. He thankfully ends up befriending Goona (Maisie Williams), who secretly yearns to play on the team in the Bronze Age city where Nooth rules as begrudging ambassador of the queen of the land, but who is forbidden because she is female. She joins the cave tribe, teaching them the rules and gameplay of the sport, becoming part of their ragtag team and helping them to train before they are to face the Bronze team on the stadium green. The cavepeople are eager to learn, and with the help of their trusty, doglike wild boar pet (voiced, hilariously, by director Nick Park himself), they put their hearts into trying their very best and never giving up. 

The film plot largely plays out as expected, but there are so many marvelous quirks in the way it gets through its beats and tropes that it doesn’t really matter. Early Man is, in all senses of the word, a feel-good movie; even its villains are daffy caricatures that, as unsympathetic as they are, provide a lot of comedy and get their comeuppances in true Aardman fashion. The movie doesn’t concern itself with historical accuracy, or worry too much about its misplaced anachronisms – and, really, the Stone Age and Bronze Age backdrops and characterizations could easily be replaced with others in any time period and exact the same results. But to dwell on these details is to rob Early Man of its charm; Park creates here a world of clashing cultures that must both learn from one another even as they vie for their individual goals. 

But there is very little seriousness or sentimentality, and the heart of this film is in its sweetness toward the underdogs and outcasts. Aside from Dug and the chief of the tribe, Bobnar (Timothy Spall), the cavepeople are pretty much interchangeable, with singular traits that define them – there’s the dope that eats everything whether it’s food or not, the pugilistic cavewoman, the overbearing mother and her son – and yet, they are just lovable enough to care about when their fate becomes uncertain. Goona, the Bronze Age beauty who befriends them and becomes their soccer coach, is a typically sweet and spunky heroine. But Aardman treats these tropes gently, and focuses on using these broadly defined characters to further the humor. 

Early Man isn’t as high-action, emotional, or cerebral as some of Aadman’s other offerings, nor is it as visually arresting as other studios’ stop-motion efforts. It relies on design straightforwardness, a likable cast of characters, and a lighter attitude to tell what is really a very simple story that will appeal to all ages. With the kind of gentle humor that drives all of Nick Park’s films, it kicks the ball straight into the goal without tooting its own vuvuzela, making for a pleasant, uncomplicated film fit for everyone to enjoy. It’s cracking good fun, and you can take that to the Message Bird.

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-Dana Culling