This is a simple formula. If you love animation, Aardman Studios, comedies, soccer and/or movies in general, then you really have no excuse not to see Aardman’s latest, Early Man. It’s the first feature directed by founding filmmaker Nick Park since The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Park also helmed all of the Wallace & Gromit shorts, the original Creature Comforts short, and Chicken Run). The story, the voice actors, the weather, the traffic—none of that should matter when it comes to seeing whatever is new from Aardman, a studio that still relies primarily on stop-motion animation and puts out features quite infrequently as a result.
The setting here is that moment in prehistoric time when primitive man and a version slightly more advanced existed on earth at the same time (they call it the Bronze Age in the movie). I have no idea if such an age actually existed and I don’t care; this isn’t the National Geographic channel.
Among the primitives is a guy named Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), who is just ambitious and smart enough to understand that simply using fishing as the sole means for his tribe to get food isn’t going to sustain it much longer, and he suggests to Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) that perhaps they hunt bigger game, like woolly mammoths. The idea is dismissed without much discussion and Dug retreats into his place in the tribe, alongside his sidekick, Hognob (who I believe is a warthog, non-speaking variety).
Without warning, the tribe’s valley is invaded and taken over by the army of Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), who leads a city of bronze and is looking for new lands to mine for more ore. Initially, Nooth isn’t even aware there are primitives living on the land, but once he finds out, he couldn’t care less. In an attempt to recapture the valley, Dug sneaks into Bronze Age City to speak reasonably with Nooth (we suspect early on this is a futile effort). While he’s within the city walls, he discovers a competition is underway featuring some of the city’s most fearsome athletes. The game looks a lot like soccer, and Dug has no idea how to play it, which doesn’t stop him from challenging Nooth’s league of champions to a game—with the fate of the valley as prize.
Helping the primitives learn the game is a defector from the Bronze City named Goona (Maisie Williams of “Game of Thrones”), who is never allowed to compete because she is a woman. But the Stone Age team wants her desperately because she’s the best player, and by the time the championship game kicks off, the primitives are good enough to give the champs a run for their money. The warthog also turns out to be a great player as well. Go figure…
Early Man’s cast is rounded out with very funny voice work by the likes of Richard Ayoade, Miriam Margolyes, and the great Rob Brydon, who plays three characters including a Messenger Bird who takes his job much too seriously. Of the main characters, Williams’ Goona truly stands out as a new voice for the studio, giving us its strongest, most fully realized female character to date. Goona is a leader and the best at what she does on the field, and nothing about the way the character is played feels like pandering or anything dismissive. Dug is a little bit in love with her, sure, but he’s more enamored with her skills as a soccer player than anything else.
Early Man is loads of fun, plain and simple, geared toward a younger audience but still completely accessible to parents and other older folks. Don’t let the fact that it’s about soccer turn you off from seeing it. A sports movie is a sports movie, and you don’t have to know the game to love the hell out of this film. There’s a goofy, high-energy spirit to all Aardman works that often makes being an idiot an art form, and often features a voiceless character who also happens to be the smartest one in any room.
I love these films because the people that make them remember the joy of being a creative child, playing with clay, and creating silly stories. The Aardman movies feel like they were made by kids at times, but then they’ll sneak in a veiled adult joke that almost has me doing a spit-take in the theater.
There’s also something wonderfully tactile about watching an Aardman movie; and I’m always eager to create with my hands after seeing one of the studio’s works. It’s filmmaking that seems to hit more of the senses than usual, and that’s an easy feeling to fall in love with, much like this movie.