Stop motion animation is among the most fascinating filmmaking approaches in my personal opinion and one of the masters in this art is Aardman Animations who released a new film called “Early Man” over the weekend. Sporting a top-notch cast and some great detailed animation “Early Man” is a pretty decent animated movie. It’s not perfect, but it brings charm and some goofy fun to the big screen even if its story is so predictable you can see it’s conclusion from a mile away. So, is it worth a look? Well here’s my review of “Early Man”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Early Man” finds a small remaining group of cavemen and cavewomen living in a valley led by the chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) and an adventurous caveman named Dug (Eddie Redmayne). When modern man of the Bronze Age, led by money loving Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) invade their valley the cavemen are forced to the volcanic badlands, but Dug is accidentally transported to a Bronze Age city where he discovers the residents are fans of football (or soccer if your American) and challenges the champion team to a match against the cavemen for ownership of the valley. As Lord Nooth tries his best to sabotage the success of the cavemen, Dug teams with his pet boar Hognob (Nick Park who also directed) and one of the city’s residents Goona (Maisie Williams), herself an aspiring footballer, to whip the cavemen into shape for the big match that pits the Stone Age against the Bronze Age in a battle of eras like never before.
I have to say the voice acting in this film is tremendously good. In fact, its some of the best I’ve heard in a long time with many actors being almost unrecognizable due to their embracing of accents and vocal styles completely different from what we’re used to hearing from them. One actor who does maintain his trademark mousy vocal style is Eddy Redmayne who portrays the movie’s hero, caveman Dug. Dug is a shy, but adventurous character and Redmayne gives him personality and vocal inflections that perfectly compliment his insecure nature while also giving him an aura of confidence. Dug feels like an everyman. He’s not rough and tough and maybe not even naturally brave, but Redmayne brings the same charm and lovable charisma to this animated cave dweller that he does to most of his other roles, rising above who you think the character is and making him much more complex. Redmayne is a talent and was the perfect choice for this role and he makes Dug a very relatable and, frankly, adorable character to see on screen.
Helping Dug is Goona who is portrayed by Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones fame. Williams, who speaks with an English accent normally, brings a more Viking-like persona to Goona who is a resident of the Bronze Age city that decides to help the cavemen out of support for their cause and hope that she’ll be able to play on the football pitch, something the city’s society seems to frown upon. Goona is a strong female lead and actually turns the tables on normal sports movie tropes by becoming the player coach of the cavemen team as a woman rather than the experienced male role model normally utilized in these kinds of films. Williams’ accent is spot on and she gives Goona a maturity and confidence that seems to be beyond Williams own years in this world. Goona as a character is a fun and enjoyable badass who is confident, capable and unafraid of failure in her quest to do what she loves. It’s a challenging character to portray in real life let alone with just a voice over and Williams does a very respectable job.
Another character performance I want to mention is probably the best of all in terms of showing off acting range and that’s Lord Nooth, the despicable money grabbing head of the Bronze Age city who sees the showdown between ages on the pitch as a way to get more money from the people and humiliate the cavemen as “lesser lifeforms”. Nooth is played by Tom Hiddleston and you’d never ever guess it if you weren’t told that in the credits. Hiddleston’s voice, which in its natural tone is more associated with prim and proper roles and his appearance as Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is almost unrecognizable in this film and that’s a good thing. Hiddleston shows him incredible talent as a vocal performer by totally becoming a completely different person for Nooth, giving him a pretentious accent that speaks to his dastardly ways. Nooth is one of the most fun characters to watch in this movie, from his self-righteous introduction to his just desserts, and it’s all thanks to Hiddleston providing an engaging vocal performance that brings this villain to life probably more than any other character in the film. That’s saying something because the movie is filled with great characters all well portrayed by those behind the mic and while I only touched on three in this review it should be said that overall the acting is as good as it can be for an animated film like this and it seems like it was a fun project to work on as well.
As a stop motion movie “Early Man” is not as dark and bleak as many genre staples and thus sets itself apart instantly, capturing a very different world than we are used to seeing with these clay models. Director Nick Park and the puppeteers and designers behind the film created a fully realized world that melds the Stone Age and Bronze Age seamlessly, making it very believable that a tribe of cavemen could have survived outside of the growing world for as long as they did. “Early Man” looks great and is immersive with great set pieces and character designs and a well written script and well-paced story that, while it doesn’t stray from convention, keeps you hooked for the duration of its short 90-minute run time.
I thoroughly enjoyed the attention to detail given to the cavemen in this movie. The entire tribe gets a chance to shine as each individual caveman and cavewoman is established to have their own personalities, vices and quirks. While we don’t get to spend much time with any of them specifically outside of Dug and the chief, it was nice to see an animated feature take care to add little details to even the most insignificant characters among its band of heroes. While I can’t say the same of the Bronze Age city residents, a fact I’ll touch on farther down, I give the movie a lot of credit for being willing and able to fully flesh out at least half of its cast of characters to give us an idea of who will be fighting for the good guys on the pitch.
The story itself deserves a mention here simply because this is something we truly had not seen before. “Early Man” has its problems in the narrative, mainly it’s dependence on a predictable story structure, but overall it felt fresh and new and the fact that what we got is a smooth and well-paced sports-themed adventure only helps make it that much more impressive. Bringing together two very different ages of time and forcing them to play one of the world’s most popular sports against each other seemed odd at first when I heard about it, but seeing it play out was a fun, if predictable, tale that benefited greatly from its unique setting and the stakes at hand. To that end “Early Man” is not only a smoothly animated and fun stop-motion movie, it’s one that embraces its own look and style. However, this only makes for a good shell. Deep inside it’s still the same old story we’ve seen many times before.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
That brings me to my biggest gripe about this movie. The setting and participants in the game are original, the characters are fun and memorable, but the general format of the story, two opposing sides battling it out in a popular sport, was far too formulaic. Yes, “Early Man” is creative and innovative in many ways but innovation isn’t always enough to overcome clichés. I saw exactly how this story would play out the moment I stepped in the theaters and yes this can be said for A LOT of movies but neve quite a predictable as we get here. You can see it coming. A clash begins, the good guys start to show some spunk, the bad guy tries something to get them off their edge, the heroes question themselves and then, well, you know where this goes. In other words, despite everything new that “Early Man” offers it leans way too heavily on the same old song and dance we’ve seen before in terms of sports movies and never tries to do anything creative with the premise. If this sounds like a familiar problem you might recall this is a similar issue I had with “Black Panther”, however that movie showed that there are ways to utilize convention without it controlling the actual story. In “Early Man” the story is completely dependent on the framework and is built around it rather than trying to evolve it for it’s own use. This makes “Early Man’ criminally predictable. So predictable in fact that the entire story was easy to define from the start. Now I know this is a kid’s movie so it has to have that approach to some extent, but we’ve seen more complex films even from Aardman themselves that are able to embrace cliché’s while still making a story feel fresh and new all around. For “Early Man” it’s like biting into a candy with a new, colorful outside, but the inside is still bland chocolate without even the pleasure of an added flavor. That doesn’t make it a bad film, it just makes it predictable.
This is all complimented by my second big issue with the movie and that’s a lack of development on the other end of the football pitch. We get to know the cavemen very well, but really, we only get to know two of the Bronze Age city residents, Goona and Lord Nooth. The rival football team is relegated to egomaniacs with personality disorders barely delved into during one particular scene in the movie which seems to only serve as an introduction to positions on the field for those unfamiliar with football or soccer. There’s no depth or memorability on the other end of the football. The movie tries to touch on themes of sportsmanship and teamwork but offers little redemption for the Bronze Age team and even when they get their chance at forgiveness that too feels watered down and swept under the rug. In a 90-minute movie I know time constrains can limit where the focus has to be, which is why I’m giving this film more leeway than it probably deserves on that front. Still, if they’re going to go all out and make a point to develop the cavemen as fully as they did I feel like the same should have been done for the other side of the coin. If nothing else it would have been a great message to the young viewers that regardless of who someone is on the field, they’re still human when the game is said and done.
“Early Man” is a solid film. It’s not perfect, but it’s solid. It’s beautifully animated and the setting is very original especially for a sport’s themed story. The characters we do get to see a lot are memorable and the voice acting is incredible with some actors going above and beyond to show their vocal range in their portrayal of these fun and animated men and women. Still, the film suffers from an overdependence on sports film clichés that, while surrounded by charm and originality, still remain a blemish on an otherwise fantastic film. Add in the lack of depth on the bad guys side save for its one major villain and “Early Man” feels like a one sided affair where we’re told who to cheer for and given few reasons save for some shoehorned moments to have any sympathy for those on the opposite end of the battle. Although, it’s a children’s film, so it does deserve some leeway because of the limits of time and an understanding of its audience’s retention of these concepts. In the end I enjoyed it and still believe it’s a shining example of just how great this form of animation can still be in today’s changing world of cinema. There’ have been better animated movies, but “Early Man” is still better than most of the pack.