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Early Man, the latest animated feature from the Aardman studio’s star director Nick Park (creator of the Wallace and Gromit franchise, and the recent Shaun the Sheep Movie), is about as warming, homey and distinctly British as a mug of hot, sweet, milky tea on a rainy day. Park and his team of animators have aptly married form and function by pairing the stop-motion method, a technique as old as cinema itself, with a story about a tribe of Neanderthal cave dwellers confronted by Bronze Age colonizers with European accents. (Anyone for hidden Brexit allegory?) In the end, it’s all worked out through a game of football, or “soccer,” as Yanks like to call the “Beautiful Game.”
Although the star player on the field turns out to be a girl (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams) and there are jokes about answering-machine-like messages and so on, a strong retro vibe tints the entire film. That’s especially true of the humor in the script by Mark Burton and James Higginson, based on a story by Burton and Park, which shamelessly recycles gags from assorted inspirations, from The Flintstones, classic Ealing comedies, Carry On movies and, above all, Park’s own impeccable filmography. Audiences beyond the shrinking shores of the British Isles may not get all the specifically local references and in-jokes, but they’ll still appreciate the dryness of the vocal cast’s line delivery and the laser-like precision of the comic timing throughout, a feature further refined by Sim Evan-Jones’ ultra-crisp editing.
A jolly pre-title sequence kicks things off in style by showing how hominids cohabiting the earth with dinosaurs (paleontological accuracy is clearly not the thing here) invented soccer with a hot meteor in the Neo-Pleistocene Era near what will eventually be Manchester and “around lunchtime,” per a cheeky subtitle. Fast-forward several many millennia, and a tribe descended from those first footie-players are happily hunting and gathering in a lushly forested valley, under the leadership of aged Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall). But young Dug (Eddie Redmayne) has ambitions and suggests that the clan try hunting something bigger than just rabbits, like buffalo or woolly mammoths. Wild boar, however, are not an option given Dug’s best friend is an inquisitive porcine companion named Hognob (grunts and snuffles voiced by Park himself), who is basically a Gromit stand-in with a massive underbite.
Cue the arrival of metal-clad warriors led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, putting on an accent that sometimes sounds French and sometimes German, so maybe he’s from Alsace or something.) Nooth has been assigned to govern the area on behalf of the puntastically named Queen Oofeefa (Miriam Margolyes), while the colonizers mine the local caves for ore to make the bronze that’s built their empire. They take over the valley, banishing the stone-agers to the badlands beyond, and construct a town where the main entertainment is gladiatorial soccer matches. Local pot-seller Goona (Williams) longs to play but can’t because of her gender. Eventually, she and Dug team up, literally, with the stone-age tribe to form a team to play against the Nooth-backed Real Bronzio, a squad of preening, overpaid show-offs not unlike Chelsea’s recent lineups.
In other words, in keeping with the nostalgic attitude that pervades all aspects of the film, the authors’ message is things were better in the old days, in relation to football and community values at the very least, when it wasn’t all about money and materialism and everyone worked together as a team. It’s no accident that the red-tops and white-shorts strip (team uniform) that the stone-agers wear evokes the England squad in the final of the 1966 World Cup, arguably that nation’s finest footballing hour. But as if heading off accusations of fuddy-duddiness and small-c conservatism, Park and Co. ensure that cheeky anachronistic puns and gags playing on modern idioms are studded throughout in both foreground and background, for example in the headline of a newspaper reporting on a “Woad Rage” incident (“man caught blue-handed” reads the subhead).
For fans of Park’s earlier work, there are plenty of tiny callbacks and micro-allusions. But most of all there’s the comforting reassurance of being once again in a world where the characters often have noses either like pig snouts or polyps and pipe-cleaner-straight arms, cloth, hair and fur ripples and twitches unexpectedly due to the effects of stop-motion, and birds of one species or another wreak havoc. (There is an extremely funny perspective joke involving a belligerent mallard.) Even the color palette calls back to the sepia and sun-starved tones of the Northern suburbia where Wallace and Gromit lived, all brown stone and tea-tinged textiles. No matter when the action is set, some things never change in Park’s world. Nor should they.
Production companies: A Studiocanal, BFI, Aardman presentation in association with Amazon Prime Instant Video or an Aardman production
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Miriam Margolyes, Rob Brydon, Johnny Vegas, Mark Williams, Selina Griffiths, Richard Ayoade, Simon Greenall, Gina Yashere, Nick Park, Richard Webber, Kayvan Novak
Director: Nick Park
Screenwriter: Mark Burton, James Higginson, based on a story by Mark Burton and Nick Park
Producers: Peter Lord, David Sproxton, Nick Park, Carla Shelley, Richard Beek
Executive producers: Ron Halperin, Didier Lupfer, Danny Perkins, Ben Roberts, Natascha Whaton, Alicia Gold
Co-executive producers: Sean Clarke, Paul Kewley, Kerry Lock
Director of photography: Dave Alex Riddett
Puppet designer-creative head of department: Kate Anderson
Production designer: Matt Perry
Animation directors: Will Becher, Merlin Crossingham
Animation supervisor: Loyd Price
Technical director: Howard Jones
Editor: Sim Evan-Jones
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams, Tom Howe
Casting: Gail Stevens
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