Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Early Man, the latest from Aardman Animation Studios, is another light, clever, funny animated family comedy from the studio behind Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run.
It is about Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne, star of the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise), a caveman who is part of a primitive tribe of rabbit hunters. One day, their valley is invaded by the arrogant and greedy Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), who wants to mine their land for its valuable ore. Dug is not willing to give up their ancestral home so easily and ends up challenging Nooth’s team of professionals to a game of football (soccer to us Americans) against the caveman, with the winner getting the valley. The problem is, the cavemen have no idea what football is.
At only 78 minutes (not including the end credits), Early Man is very fast-paced and filled nonstop with silly puns and lots of sight-gags. The characters, especially the brave Dug and his pet pig, Hognob, are very likable. The relationship between Dug and Hognob is not that different from the one between Wallace and his dog, Gromit. Neither animal speaks, they are both very smart and are always having to help get their owners out of trouble. Hognob is a little less beleaguered than Gromit and more likely to relax and have some fun. And they both deliver some great visual gags. The way Hognob prevents himself from getting caught when he and Dug sneak into the stadium to steal a ball is the funniest moment in the whole movie.
The tone of a movie like Early Man is a difficult thing to maintain. The heroes have to be goofy, but not so goofy that you cannot take them seriously. And the villains have to be mean, but not scary. They need to be just enough of a threat that it is funny and satisfying when they get their comeuppance. Aardman, and especially director Nick Park, have gotten very good at finding that perfect balance. It feels like the characters are aware that their situation is kind of ridiculous. That could become irritating, but somehow it becomes charming. I enjoyed spending time in their crazy world. The jokes are funny, never condescending and rarely gross (admittedly, there is a poop joke and I did laugh at it).
Additionally, the stop-motion animation used by the studio, while certainly less realistic looking than the purely computer generated animation used by Pixar and their competitors, has its own beauty. The herky-jerky movements of the characters and the not-quite-real way that clothes or hair move with them seems to fit the worlds they have created. Since this style is rarely used these days, their work stands out. Lucky for them (and us), they make good movies.
Early Man is not Aardman’s best work, but it is goofy and fun. The story is pretty slight and the characters are not complex at all. However, the jokes and sheer likability of the whole production makes up for it. This is not one of those family films with a valuable lesson to teach (though there is a moral in here somewhere about believing in yourself). But it is pretty funny.
3½ out of 5
Eddie Redmayne as Dug
Tom Hiddleston as Lord Nooth
Maisie Williams as Goona
Timothy Spall as Chief Bobnar
Directed by Nick Park
Screenplay by Mark Burton and James Higginson