To see a Nick Park film is an experience akin to dunking a digestive in a toffee coloured cup of tea while insisting “I knew that one!” to every other question set by University Challenge: an unapologetically British experience. In the hands of Nick and his team expressive, squishy faces gurn and churn through a range of feelings from perplexity to bafflement and beyond while endearingly daft plots unravel before their Plasticine eyes. From The Wrong Trousers to Curse of the Were-Rabbit, via Chicken Run and that pesky sheep, Aardman Animations have (hand) carved their niche and occupied it with panache. This brings us to Early Man.
Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) is, in many ways, a typical Stone Age guy. He enjoys hunting and gathering in the lush green valley he calls home and hanging with his pet pig, Hognob. In many ways Dug would like nothing more than for life in the valley to remain unchanged for another million years, just like his friends. But unlike his friends Dug also aspires to bigger things. Specifically, to hunt bigger things. Chief Bobnar’s (Timothy Spall) insistence that the tribe should only hunt rabbits feels a little restrictive to Dug. Especially when there are dinosaurs so tantalisingly close at hand.
Though the rough hewn cave drawings they treasure painstakingly lay out the rules of football for Dug and his valley dwelling chums, something has been lost in translation down the years. Chief Bobnar, like those who ruled before him, declares these to be the instructions for bunny hunting and his loyal followers take the gruff leader at his word. It takes a major turf invasion for their perspective to change. When the outside world comes crashing in Dug is forced to reappraise the lessons of the past so the early men may win the game of their lives. And just like that Early Man becomes the words of Bill Shankly realised in clay!
Early Man literally bears the fingerprints of Aardman. The loops and whorls of the sculptors dance across the bodies and furrowed brows of the cast and remind us of the astonishing workmanship involved in telling Dug’s tale. Unfortunately the subtler traces of Aardman’s craft have been lost. Screenwriters John O’Farrell and Mark Burton, together with Park, sacrifice the affectionate, intimate, character studies of Aardman past in favour of more generic sports movie cliches in order to get Dug and Real Bronzio to face off before the credits roll. Dug’s friends blend into a regionally accented anti Greek Chorus. Raising chuckles at the time with their bickering and dissent yet all but impossible to individually recall.
It feels silly to waste the vocal distinctiveness and comic range of Richard Ayoade and Gina Yashere just to tick a training montage box. And while Maisie Williams (as talented footballer and sympathetic Bronze Age gal, Gooner) gets more generous screentime, her burgeoning friendship with Dug lacks the charm and quirks we have come to expect. Only the mighty Margolyes is on delightfully eccentric form as indomitable Queen Oofeefa. With added value brought by her droll bird messenger (Rob Brydon) – an advance party who issues her decrees and apparently shares her stylist.
Early Man is a cheery and competent underdog story, packed with footballing puns. The humour is gentle and the gags generously scattered. The vocal cast are universally charming (though somewhat restricted by an unambitious script) and the stop motion animation is breathtaking in both detail and scale. Those with fond memories of Nick Park’s earlier work may wish to revisit old favourites instead but newcomers to Aardman won’t be disappointed.
Early Man is released on Friday 26th January