I’ve long felt that Aardman Animation never got the attention it deserves among the general American public, remaining cult favorites among cartoon aficionados while lesser work from bigger studios got the blockbuster box office and pop culture mindshare. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that Early Man, the latest feature from the studio, will do very much to reverse that trend. In addition to centering on a sport that most Americans just don’t care that much about, the movie itself is curiously lacking in the quirky characters that mark the studio’s most memorable works. It’s a fine, enjoyable film full of appropriate warm fuzzies and quite a bit of silliness, but the characters and the overall narrative just feel a bit too old hat.
Early Man centers on the young caveman Dug, left constantly feeling like there should be more to life than hunting rabbits, as his complacent tribe seems to believe. However, the life of the tribe is turned upside-down when their idyllic valley home is invaded by their Bronze Age neighbors, who promptly set up a mine to dig for more ore. Separated from the tribe, Dug soon finds himself in the Bronze Age city inside a giant stadium in the middle of a massive football (soccer) game. Seeing the city’s cult-like adoration for the game, Dug makes a bet with the pompous city governor Lord Nooth: a match between the Dug’s tribe and the city’s all-star football team where the winner gets the valley and the loser ends up in the mines. Unfortunately, none of Dug’s tribe know how to play, despite their ancient cave paintings showing their forerunners playing football. The tribe’s only chance is a breakneck training regimen led by Dug and his new friend Goona, a Bronze Age girl who’s brilliant at football but banned from playing with the Bronze Age team because of her gender.
Unfortunately, Early Man ends up being a highly conventional underdog sports movie padded with really obvious jokes and references. It’s silly more than genuinely funny, but is missing the spark that made the Wallace & Gromit movies so unforgettable. In hindsight, one might have the same criticism for Chicken Run (which is, at heart, a thoroughly conventional World War II prison escape movie), except “WWII prison break with chickens” is an inherently funnier log line than “soccer movie with cavemen.” Once the movie gets all its pieces in place, they end up playing out almost exactly as you expect them to: Dug and his tribe learn to work as a team, the tribe members realize they were wrong to dismiss Dug in the first place, the pompous Lord Nooth and his team of prima donna football players get their come-uppance, the game is a nail-biter that comes down to the last second. The fact that the characters are all pre-Iron Age humans animated via stop-motion doesn’t do much to goose the extremely well-worn plot.
All along the way, the script leans a bit too heavily on obvious punch lines and dad jokes, earning more groans than real laughs and never achieving the oddball hilarity of their earlier movies. This also means that the talents of the voice cast are largely lost in the shuffle. Eddie Redmayne and Maisie Williams are earnest and good-natured as Dug and Goona, but both remain stock characters for the duration of the movie, lacking anything like the charming daffiness of Wallace. Similarly, Hognob the boar is Dug’s largely silent companion and often the brains of the pair, but he doesn’t have same skill at physical comedy as Gromit or Shaun the Sheep and his castmates. Tom Hiddleston has solid comedic chops, but they’re largely lost in his ludicrously exaggerated French accent as Lord Nooth. The extremely predictable nature means that you might miss the movie’s most stunning achievement, which is that an animation medium shot one frame at a time managed to produce an entirely believable slapstick football match for the movie’s climactic set piece. But it really felt like an awful long time getting there.
While recounting my impression of the movie, my 8-year-old son felt compelled to remind me, “Well, yeah, but this movie was made for kids,” and while I have never accepted that as an excuse for sloppy films, I admit he does have a point. Like a lot of movies that I liked but did not love, Early Man may rely a lot on conventions, but it does them all quite successfully and they’re only cliches if you’ve seen them already. An audience encountering the underdog sports movie conventions for the first time could do a lot worse than Early Man. As with a lot of middle-grade Pixar films, Early Man suffers only in comparison to the movies that preceded it, where Aardman trained us to expect more.