Early Man

 

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Not the very best of Aardman but a film to be enjoyed all the same.

 
Early Man

 

Most film enthusiasts have favourite film stars and, perhaps, favourite directors too. These are people whom they admire, but there is also a rarer response which goes beyond that and that is genuine affection. Strangely enough in recent times the two most obvious examples of this relate not to individuals but to collectives: the triumph of Paddington 2 brought its creators into that category, while the other example goes further back being for Aardman Animation. In the latter case the affection felt partly grew out of love for the studio’s two most famous creations, Wallace and Gromit, but, as is evidenced by the appeal of other Aardman films in which they do not appear, the love evoked is really for Aardman itself, a recognition of the dedication involved in the making of their animated movies and their own deep love for the work they produce.

 

The consequence of this is that hopes are always high when a new Aardman piece comes along and this applies particularly to their latest offering, Early Man, since its directorial credit belongs to the studio’s best known individual, Nick Park who invented Wallace and Gromit. If, by now, the high standard of Aardman's stop-motion images can be taken for granted, there's also immediate reassurance that Early Man will be full of neat, incidental gags. Delightful written statements pinpoint time and place for us during a prologue ahead of the title itself. Following this the main narrative ensues, one set at a time when the Bronze Age (represented by dastardly Lord Nooth) is threatening to take over from the cavemen (one of them being our youthful hero Dug whose enthusiasms are not always well judged). It's Dug who rashly suggests to the enemy that a football match should decide the fate of the land previously occupied by the cavemen: he does this regardless of the fact that the challengers will have to learn the sport from scratch even if their ancestors are said to have discovered the beautiful game in the first place.

 

What develops echoes many an underdog movie, but Early Man unlike Chicken Run is less a clever echo of pre-existent films than a comedy built around the ample opportunities for comic anachronisms. As the tale proceeds, the film becomes increasingly engaging, but for Aardman fans who make comparisons it suffers from two drawbacks. The best Aardman works create worlds of their own that we are eager to enter, but there is less incentive than usual to make us embrace the cavemen's universe. In a film in which animals are featured too, it seems ill-judged to assume that we will side with the cavemen hunters at the expense of their prey, a rabbit. Yet the reserve we feel about succumbing surely stems in the main from our reaction to Dug himself even if we are engaged by his companion, the wordless pig Hobnob. They may adventure together in the tradition of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza but, even more clearly, they suggest a variant on Wallace and Gromit themselves - and all the more so since the protective sidekick tends to be wiser than Dug. With grunts provided by Nick Park himself, Hobnob undoubtedly works, but Dug, through no fault of Eddie Redmayne who voices him, is a forgettable hero just as Tom Hiddleston's Lord Nooth lacks any real memorability.

 

For the first half therefore the good incidental jokes save the day. However, the tale livens up with the arrival of a heroine, Goona (Maisie Williams), adept on the field. And when it comes to the day of the crucial match the fact that the plot springs virtually no surprises matters not a jot because what happens is what we want to happen. Actually, there is one unforeseeable twist which could be regarded as a late corrective to one of the failings I have mentioned, and it occurs at the very end of the film. It's a touch that adds to my belief that most audiences will enjoy this film even if they do share some or even all of my reservations.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Voices of  Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Miriam Margolyes, Richard Ayoade, Mark Williams, Rob Brydon, Johnny Vegas, Kayvan Novak, Gina Yashere, Nick Park.

 

Dir Nick Park, Pro Peter Lord, Nick Park and David Sproxton, Screenplay Mark Burton and James Higginson, from a story by Nick Park with John O'Farrell, Ph Charles Copping, Dave Alex Ridett, Paul Smith and Peter Sorg, Art Dir Richard Edmunds and Matt Perry, Ed Sim Even-Jones, Music Harry Gregson-Williams and Tom Howe.

 

Aardman Animations/StudioCanal/BFI-StudioCanal.
89 mins. UK/France. 2018. Rel: 26 January 2018. Cert. PG.