Early Man review: a gloriously funny tale of stone-age stragglers

It’s so important to choose the right materials for the task at hand, and when it comes to animating a pig nervously giving a back massage to a fat man in the bath, only Plasticine will do. Watch Early Man, the new film from Aardman Animations, and you’ll understand.

Mere words can’t do the sequence justice, even ones like “wibble” and “moob”. It’s the kind of comic set-piece you find yourself laughing about days later in bed, as you fall asleep, just at the thought of how it looked.

But ever since the Creature Comforts days, that’s always been the Aardman way. Their characters’ comedic power seems to bulge and ripple from within, squeezed into the clay with every animator’s pinch and tweak. Perhaps Early Man feels so infused with bygone craftsmanship because it is the first Aardman film in ten years to have been directed by Nick Park, the creator of Wallace and Gromit and devisor of the Bristol-based studio’s pop-eyed and orthodontically challenged house style. Or it might just feel old-fashioned because it’s set in caveman times.

Starting in the Neo-Pleistocene era – because when a pun like that just presents itself

You don’t turn it down – Early Man is about a tribe of stone-age stragglers in a world that’s moved on to bronze. Foremost among them is Dug (Eddie Redmayne), who hunts rabbits in a fertile valley with his porcine sidekick Hognob at his flank. Past the forests lie nothing but lava-scarred badlands – or so Dug thinks.

Then a raiding party stomps in on mammoth-back, led by the grasping, supercilious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), and equipped with all the latest newly smelted tech. They claim the place for themselves, and Dug’s people can do nothing about it. Their only hope – which is just about rationalised, plot-wise – is to win back their land in a high-stakes football match against Nooth’s club, Real Bronzio, played in front of Queen Oofeefa (Miriam Margolyes), who looks a little like a distant ancestor of Theresa May.

Despite having no prior awareness of the game’s existence, the tribe accepts, and training begins immediately – with help from a talented young wannabe, voiced by Maisie Williams, whose name is Goona and who is therefore presumably a forerunner of the modern-day Arsenal fan. There is, quite literally, everything to play for. If Chicken Run was Aardman’s take on The Great Escape, think of this as their Escape to Victory, with Sylvester Stallone switched for a sabre-toothed pig.

Park and his screenwriters, Mark Burton and John O’Farrell, mess around with the conventions of the underdog sports film as best they can.

But the genre is a particularly inflexible one, and you sometimes sense the collective Aardman imagination. That has been held back by everything the film is obliged to get through, just in order to reach the final showdown on the pitch.

Even so, no frame is wasted, and every scene is crammed with so much casual comic detail. That repeat viewings are more or less required. (I especially loved Timothy Spall’s Chief Bobnar casually trimming his morning stubble with a giant beetle.) And there are some sections that really click with the format – not least of all the training montages. Which immediately descend into quick-fire slapstick.

Each of Dug’s distinctive tribe-mates – voiced by Richard Ayoade, Gina Yashere, Johnny Vegas and others

That bring a unique and indispensable comic function to the group. (The voice work is uproarious across the board here: Hiddleston’s articulation. That of the film’s single use of the word “crap” almost made me shriek.)

And there is something about the cast’s doughy physiques that has allowed Park’s flair. That for caricature to run completely berserk, with every character model pushed right to its expressive limits.

Despite the use of technology that allows for sweeping crowds and landscapes on a scale rarely seen in stop-motion animation. The traditional, heart-swelling hallmarks of the medium all remain in glorious evidence. I mean the flicker of finger-prints across the models’ faces as subtly enlivening as candlelight. And the gentle ruffling of their hair from frame to frame, as it’s brushed by unseen hands. The miracle of great stop-motion has always been that the films look loved. As you watch Early Man, you can feel it.

INFO:

Rating: PG (for rude humor and some action)
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Kids & Family
Directed By: Nick Park
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams
Written By: Mark Burton, James Higginson
In Theaters: Feb 16, 2018 Wide
On Disc/Streaming: May 22, 2018
Runtime: 89 minutes
Studio: Lionsgate

CRITIC REVIEWS FOR EARLY MAN

Paul Byrnes
Aardman has always done this layering of humour, so that adults can enjoy their stories as much as children, but this one pushes the volume up to 11. The glee runneth over from the first shot.

Ben Sachs
The story is thin, allowing little room for imaginative engagement, and the comedy uninspired. Early Man contains a nice anti-sexism message, but delivers it half-heartedly.

David Sims
Early Man is not so much a return to form as it is a long overdue comeback — and a welcome one at that.

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