A film review by Craig J. Koban March 6, 2018


2018, PG, 89 mins.


Eddie Redmayne as Dug (voice)  /  Tom Hiddleston as Lord Nooth (voice)  /  Maisie Williams as Goona (voice)  /  Simon Greenall as Eemak (voice)  /  Gina Yashere as Gravelle (voice)  /  Mark Williams as Barry (voice)  /  Johnny Vegas as Asbo (voice)  /  Selina Griffiths as Magma (voice)  /  Richard Ayoade as Treebor (voice)  /  Timothy Spall as Chief Bobnar (voice)  /  Miriam Margolyes as Queen Oofeefa (voice)  /  Rob Brydon as Message Bird (voice)  /  Kayvan Novak as Dino (voice)

Directed by Nick Park  /  Written by Mark Burton, John O'Farrell, and James Higginson





The opening section of EARLY MAN - the latest Aardman animation studio produced and Nick Park directed stop motion film - is as spectacularly silly as any I've seen as of late.  It shows the extinction event that wiped dinosaurs off of the planet and how, via that event, mankind discovered a love of soccer. 


Not joking.  

In this early scene we witness volcanic eruptions and dinos battling it out for supremacy with one another, which then further shows early humans fighting each other (yeah...yeah...historically inaccurate...but never mind).  Then the meteorite comes, smashes down hard into the earth, and nearly obliterates everything in its path...except for the people.  As the camera pans towards the epicenter of the crater we see the remains of the meteorite and it looks - wouldn't ya know it? - suspiciously similar to a soccer ball, albeit glowing red and extremely hot.  The inquisitive, but very stupid cave men walk up to the meteor and try to pick it up, which amusingly results in them burning their hands.  This forces them all to play what could easily be described as the first game of hot potato in recorded human history.  As one of the cave dwellers tosses the smoldering rock to the other, they soon begin to realize that kicking it back and forth is actually less painful.   

The game of soccer (or "football," if you want to use the non North American equivalent) was born.



Now, I know what you're all thinking.  The sport evolved much, much later in history, not to mention that, last I checked, human beings didn't occupy the planet at the same time as dinosaurs.   Yet, we're also talking about the same UK animation studio that has a history of making films about were-rabbits and  talking chickens.  

EARLY MAN is like an infectiously agreeable mixture of Monty Python meets The Flintstones meets Gary Larson's The Far Side cartoon strip.  It's a monumentally preposterous farce about primitive Stone Age valley dwellers that find themselves having to defend their honor and homeland from a legion of Bronze Age invaders...with everything being decided in a winner-take-all soccer match.  Even though EARLY MAN doesn't quite match that audacious sense of creative freshness of approach of the previous Aardman made classics (like WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT, CHICKEN RUN, and SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE, all cherished by me), it's nevertheless a modest charmer that maintains the studio's subversive energy and penchant for all out wackiness.  That, and in a relative digital age of non-stop CG animated films, the quaintness and painstaking care that goes into these stop motion efforts remains a gloriously refreshing sight to see.  You really gain a sense of the unbridled joy and enthusiastic imagination that Park brings to all of these films. 

I should have also noted previously that the film takes place just outside of what is today Manchester, which seems fitting.  The cavemen that coveted that meteorite and, through it, cultivated the modern game of soccer becomes such a tradition that it was captured in cave paintings for future generations to worship.  The film flashes forward as we meet its protagonist in Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and we learn that soccer hasn't really caught on with new generations of cavemen, mostly because Dug's clan's basic need for securing food and shelter, which overwhelms all other imperatives.  Far away from his valley home resides an advanced group Bronze Agers, led by the sniveling Lord North (Tom Hiddleston), who wants to usurp control over Dug and his Stone Age companions to secure all of their natural resources.  One day when Dug accidentally stumbles his way into the Lord's dominion and discovers their love for all things soccer, he decides that the best course of action is to beat the Lord and his kingdom at their own game on the field to secure their futures.  There's only one problem: Dug and his people suck at soccer.  Thankfully and conveniently, an empathetic Bronze Age resident named Goona (Maisie Williams) decides to befriend Dug and teach him and his fellow rabbit hunters the ins and outs of the sport. 

Outside of its hilariously incongruent time and setting, there's nothing specifically novel about the underlining David versus Goliath narrative in EARLY MAN.  It doesn't take Nostradamus to see where this story is headed.  The undeniable big climatic sports match climax and the predictability of that contained within aside, I found it next to impossible to not watch the whole build up to that moment with a wide and consistent smile on my face, seeing as Park and his animator dynamos show, yet again, such untamed visual innovation in nearly every frame.   That, and EARLY MAN at least tries to be audaciously different from the previous Aardman work and, in turn, amps up the social and cultural satire to maximum giggle factor.  There are so many nice primordial details that abound in the film, such as, for example, showing baby crocodiles being used for laundry line clothespins or, my personal favorite, beetles being employed as beard trimmers.  There's also a wonderfully inspired bit featuring Lord North using "message birds" (one voiced to screamingly funny effect by Rob Brydon) that often results in him receiving information that was best left unsaid.  There's also an rather odd appearance of T-Rex sized duck that pays off handsomely later on. 

Talking about how painstakingly gorgeous and tactile the stop motion animation is here would almost be redundant at this point in the game, but EARLY MAN is just as much of a bravura showcase reel for its unparalleled artists and craftsman as any previous Aardman feature (the film also serves to remind viewers that adding 3D to it would have been distractingly unnecessary, seeing as stop motion animation involves real sets, real puppets, and real props being modified one frame at a time, all giving the film a strong sense of visual dimensionality).  Beyond the sumptuous imagery on display here, EARLY MAN just kind of goes for it and utterly embraces its limitless absurdity without looking back, throwing a blind eye to historical accuracy and instead living in the moment of its unbridled strangeness.  The voice performances sometimes get lost in the artifice on display, but they all work in tandem to make these beguilingly weird characters seem unusually relatable.  Redmayne brings a plucky gumption to his role, whereas Hiddleston - using an uproariously broad French accent - hams it up to highly entertaining ways as the film's main baddie; he's a Eurotrash villain thousands of years before the term even existed. 

One last thing: Something that often goes unnoticed and under appreciated is the fact that all of Nick Park's films under the Aardman umbrella are thanklessly void of cynicism or any unnecessary need to be edgy.  There's a wholesomeness of spirit to EARLY MAN that makes it such an effervescent delight and allows for it to be wickedly enjoyable for both young children and adults in equal dosages.  The film delivers on expected levels of high energy tomfoolery, but the deliciously snarky vibe that makes the Aardman films crackerjack comedies is also on paramount display here, and I for one infectiously ate it up.  No more is this evident that in the final third act soccer match between the Stone and Bronze Age teams, during which time even the commentators drolly speak out against the outlandishness that's on display.  When one of the Bronze Age players, for example, doesn't get called for a penalty on a blatant hit, one of the play-by-play men chimes in, "That's just not cricket!  Whatever that is."

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