Aardman’s Nick Park moves back into the director’s chair for the first time since 2005’s ’Were-Rabbit’

Early Man

Source: StudioCanal

Dir. Nick Park. UK. 2018. TBC mins

A Stone Age community finds itself ousted from its valley by more advanced Bronze Age neighbours in the latest claymation feature from director Nick Park. But thanks to Dug (voiced of Eddie Redmayne), a mop-topped caveman who dares to dream big, the tribe is offered the chance to win back its homeland if it can triumph against the Bronze Age team in a game of soccer. Early Man, which goes out in the UK through Studiocanal on January 26 and Lionsgate in the US on Feburary 16 – the same team as Shaun The Sheep Movie, which grossed $106m worldwide in 2015 – scores highly on amiable charm, sight gags and open goal word play; however, it lacks the nifty footwork and originality of the best Aardman pictures.

The cosy Britishness of many Aardman projects has always been a selling point

This is the first directorial outing from multi-Oscar-winner Park since The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit in 2005, and it’s likely that his name on that credit line will help the picture connect with audiences beyond the immediate family market. Early Man is the second feature to be developed and financed through the producing partnership between Aardman Animation and Studiocanal following Shaun The Sheep. Yet without the familiarity of a pre-existing property which boosted both Shaun and Wallace And Gromit’s feature-length adventures, Early Man will represent a slightly tougher marketing challenge.

The cosy Britishness of many Aardman projects has always been a selling point, however it remains to be seen whether the UK-specific soccer jokes of Early Man will translate to key markets in which football is just a sport rather than something akin to a religion. And with its reliance on a sport-based narrative, the marketable Aardman spark of madcap inventiveness is slightly diluted here. Still, it’s a very likeable film which should delight younger audiences.

There’s certainly an easy familiarity to the picture. Park employs his well-loved trademark style – endearingly gormless-looking characters wrestle with goofy teeth and British regional accents. It all feels as comfortable as a pair of mammoth-hide slippers. But the familiarity extends beyond the distinctive Park animation look, and this is where the a problem lies. Unlike the self-contained world of Wallace And Gromit or the ingenious spin on the escape movie provided by Chicken Run, Early Man explores two genres which have both been cinematically strip-mined on numerous occasions in the past. The caveman time period has already been comedically plundered by The Flintstones and The Croods, so although the jokes are undeniably funny, some of them – prehistoric bugs replacing household devices for example – feel a little recycled. And the football story brings its own limitations, not least the well-worn third act climax involving the plucky underdogs going up against the seemingly invincible champions.

Maisie Williams voices Goona, the Stone Age team’s secret weapon. She’s a footie-mad kitchenware saleswoman who dreams of playing the beautiful game but is prevented from doing so because of her sex. Bronze Age by birth, Goona nevertheless takes pity on the sad sack Stone Age soccer rejects, and agrees, through the use of a pep talk and a musical montage set to Mud’s ’Tiger Feet’, to coach them. Lip-smacking villainy is provided by Tom Hiddleston, voicing the land-grabbing, bronze-snaffling Lord Nooth with a Pythonesque French accent.

The laughs are split between deft sight gags and set-pieces, and goofy word play. A dinosaur-sized mallard brings the opportunity for both – a neat visual joke about perspective, followed by endless foul and duck confusion. There is so much groanable punning in the screenplay that one can only imagine the heroic level of self-control it took to resist the obvious pleistocene/plasticine gag. 

Ultimately, the charming silliness of the picture and the near universal appeal of soccer should outweight the niche, culturally specific nature of some of the humour. However a perhaps unintentional reading as a Brexit metaphor – the plucky but slightly rubbish Brits are pitted against the slick Europeans – might hamper the film’s potential in some markets.

Production company: Aardman Animation, Studiocanal

International sales: Studiocanal

Producers: Nick Park, Peter Lord, David Sproxton

Cinematography: Dave Alex Riddett

Screenwriter: Mark Burton, James Higginson, John O’Farrell, Nick Park

Editor: Sim Evan-Jones

Art Direction: Matt Perry, Richard Edmunds

Main cast: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Miriam Margolyes, Richard Ayoade, Timothy Spall, Rob Brydon