EARLY MAN: Aardman Animation’s Worst Effort To Date
For a studio whose storytelling style and command of visuals is so wonderfully inventive, in Early Man they’ve opted for the laziest, most obvious narrative trajectory imaginable, without even a winning sense of humour to back that up.
Nick Park can easily stake a claim as Britain’s most beloved animator. He’s responsible for directing all things Wallace and Gromit related, and upon joining Bristol’s Aardman Studios in the mid 1980s, has seen his name become synonymous with charming animations ranging from Chicken Run to Shaun the Sheep. Stop motion animation has struggled to find its footing in the overly crowded post-Pixar world of CG animation, making Aardman frequently seem like saviours of the art form, taking years to perfect each handcrafted film where other animation studios can churn out multiple efforts in a significantly shorter timeframe.
For Park’s first directorial effort since 2005’s Oscar winning Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, he’s heading back to his beloved home county of Lancashire – only this time, offering a fantastical re-imagining of the early Bronze Age in the Northern English county. In the case of Early Man, the specific geography of the story, combined with the always welcome stop motion visuals, are the only things that feel distinctive to Park’s filmography.
After thirteen years, he’s returned with a film that’s cursed with a screenplay defined by the same screenwriting laziness you’d expect from an Illumination Studios film, not the directorial comeback of Aardman’s most prestigious animator.
A Sports Movie in Disguise
A few ages after the dawning of time, a caveman named Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe of “rabbit hunters” live in a sprawling valley. Their tranquil existence is suddenly ruined when Bronze Age tycoon Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) comes to claim their home as part of the nearby Bronze Age city.
Dug, along with his pet wild boar hobnob, accidentally end up in the city – but when their appearance is publicly revealed and Dug is sent for execution, he saves himself from immediate death by unwittingly challenging the Bronze Age football team to a match (yes, really). Knowing nothing about the “beautiful game” and with only a few days to get his tribe ready for a match at a gigantic stadium, the odds are stacked against them, but they soon discover they have a historic connection to the game of football they never knew about.
Not to judge a film by its promotional campaign, but it feels that the vagueness of Early Man’s marketing has been to disguise the fact that this is a sports movie first, and a pre-historic period comedy a distant second. This is, in essence, the problem with Early Man: it’s entirely based around a thin conceit (“what if football was invented by cavemen?”), and stretches that into a formulaic narrative trajectory in the broadest manner possible. Not that Aardman’s prior efforts weren’t crowdpleasers, but they at least felt like the work of distinctive artists.
With its wealth of upbeat contemporary pop songs on the soundtrack, and increased preference for cheeky toilet humour (which the studio normally uses sparingly), Early Man feels like a cynical, by-the-numbers children’s film that would fit more comfortably in the filmographies of Blue Sky Animation or Illumination Studios.
Instead of exploring the ancient world with a gleeful and borderline anarchic indifference to geography or historical record, Park eventually settles for barely capturing any signs of life outside of the football stadium and the wilderness where the cavemen practice their sporting skills. I hate to evoke the film’s marketing, but after the teaser trailer promised a pre-historic adventure movie, rife with exploration of a perfectly realised stop motion setting, it is a considerable disappointment to find that Park’s long awaited comeback is nothing more than a formulaic underdog sports movie, with no surprising narrative beats.
Puns so bad, your dad probably could do better
It’s easy to see why children would enjoy such simple pleasures – but it’s hard to not feel disappointed at how devoid of intelligence the film is. Even the gags pitched at adults are groan inducing dad jokes, largely based around puns of things that clearly don’t exist during the film’s timeframe. By the third act, the film even breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge the punning wordplay – a sign of comedic desperation if there ever was one.
To add insult to injury, one of these fourth wall breaking moments comes courtesy of a football commentator (voiced by Rob Brydon) who points out that the title of the film we’re watching can be interpreted as a deliberate football pun. I haven’t been able to track down which football team Park supports, but the highlighting of the title’s double meaning and the bright red football kit the cavemen eventually wear suggests that we’re watching a stop motion animation documenting the blatantly fictional pre-historic founding of a certain world famous, Lancashire-based football team.
It isn’t just the duo of football commentators; minor characters elsewhere in Early Man frequently break fourth wall to acknowledge that something is a joke, or that a joke said by a character is particularly funny. The film relies on this “winking at the camera” technique to acknowledge the intended humour, yet never tries hard enough to perfect the gags themselves – there’s something hubristic about it wanting the audience to acknowledge the strength of the joke writing regardless of this fact.
There are some minor chuckles to be had here and there, but they are similarly derived from increasingly laboured puns. But it’s the bad puns that really stand out, many of which don’t even work as wordplay, and seem to have originated in the screenplay as placeholder gags that weren’t replaced in subsequent drafts.
To name just one offending example, the name of the football team the “Brutes” go up against is named Real Bronzio, a pun I assume is supposed to refer to the football team Real Madrid, despite not sounding similar, or having a double meaning that would make it register comedically. As the film progressed and the name kept getting repeated, I confess to overthinking the conception of this bad pun, and how it remained in the final draft of Early Man – its very existence seems to be a counterargument to the widespread assumption that Aardman are scriptwriting perfectionists, and not just a group of writers who can’t come up with a funny name for a Bronze Age football team.
Conclusion: Early Man
In the end, Early Man can be praised only for helping to preserve the use of stop motion in mainstream animation. There is a reason the promotional campaign has disguised the film’s existence as a sports comedy; for a studio whose storytelling style and command of visuals is so wonderfully inventive, here they’ve opted for the laziest, most obvious narrative trajectory imaginable, without even a winning sense of humour to back that up.
What is the best Aardman film to date?
Early Man is released in the UK on January 26th, and in the US on February 16th. All international release dates are here.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.