For the past thirty-odd years, audiences worldwide have been entertained by Aardman, a British animation studio that has popularised the once-dying art of stop-motion with their work on film and television. More often that not, Aardman’s work is an unadulterated delight, but on this occasion, one cannot help but feel underwhelmed.
Deep within a lush green forest, a tribe of prehistoric humans is living in relative peace, among them the adventurous caveman Dug (Eddie Redmayne). One evening, the tribe is besieged by the cavalry of Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) who intends on turning Dug’s home into an iron ore mine. Being the brave warrior he is, Dug attempts to overpower Nooth, but is knocked unconscious before the two can even do battle.
As he regains consciousness, Dug finds himself in a foreign land where bronze is the main commodity, and residents flock to a colosseum to watch a mysterious game called “football”. Sensing an opportunity, the misplaced caveman approaches Lord Nooth with a wager: if Dug and his friends can win a game of football against Nooth’s team, Real Bronze, then the tribe gets their land back. But if Real Bronze win, Dug’s friends are to toil in Nooth’s mine.
Nooth accepts the challenge proposed by Dug, leaving the latter with the job of coaching his tribe to victory – a difficult task, given that his friends have never even heard of football. Fortunately, help is available to Dug in the form of Goona (Maisie “Arya” Williams), a football-mad girl who dreams of playing professionally. With Goona’s assistance, the tribe are able to find their hidden talent, giving them a chance of beating Real Bronze.
Aardman is known for convening great casts to voice their characters, and Early Man is no exception. Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne is a solid lead as the altruistic Dug, while Maisie Williams does equally well as the tender Goona. Other familiar voices can be heard in Dug’s tribe, with Timothy “Wormtail” Spall, Johnny Vegas and Richard “Moss” Ayoade all lending their vocals; comedian Rob Brydon goes one step further by voicing several characters, including a messenger bird and two football commentators.
All of the characters have their charms, but none quite stand out as much as the antagonist, Lord Nooth. With his protruding lips, tiny hands, lust for wealth and French accent, Nooth is an oddly charming villain who makes the viewer crack a smile each time he appears. By comparison, the protagonists are far less memorable, with no traits or quirks to provide them with a personality; thus, it’s difficult to identify with them, or even take interest in their struggles.
The comedy is also lacking in Early Man – or, more particularly, the wacky humour that has long been a mainstay of Aardman’s features, shorts and otherwise. What should be a sequence of puns, slapstick and one-liners is substituted for the occasional gag that neither surpasses, nor even matches, the hilarity that is expected from this studio. It’s almost as if they’ve set themselves too high a standard to maintain.
Regrettably, even the animation lacks sparkle. Aardman has been at the forefront of stop-motion animation for years, and has the Oscars to prove it, yet there’s little of that innovation present in Early Man. The other films in Aardman’s catalogue have glorious set-pieces that would make an ordinary studio buckle; here, it’s little more than plasticine figures playing sport, with a dinosaur fight thrown in to generate some interest.
Early Man is a decent, but nor great, effort from a plucky British studio which can do finer. Though not without its allures, it would benefit from being smarter, funnier and better animated, as well as some heroes that resonate with the viewer. At least they nailed the villain.