Review by C.J. Bunce
Oscar-winning filmmaker Nick Park is back with his next entry in Aardman Animations’ ingenious world of classic stop-motion animation. The family comedy Early Man takes audiences back to the city of Manchester, England, at the dawn of the Bronze Age. In this slapstick look at history, cave men created football (American soccer) from a fallen meteorite. The sport fell out of favor, but was picked up again and embraced in the early Bronze Age by a city of moderners, but the cave men are still around and have one chance to save their world if they can only beat the Bronze Age team at the game. Unfortunately it’s a group of bumbling early humans who must learn the sport and take on a group of arrogant professional players. But it’s in the genes of the cave men, so amid a non-stop volley of sports metaphors, tropes, and jokes, the cave men have a go at it.
Leading the team and the story is Dug, voiced by Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), along with his companion, an eager early-era wild boar named Hognob, voiced by the film’s director Nick Park. The duo make for a solid homage, albeit a prehistoric incarnation, of Park’s famous Wallace & Gromit. The villain in the tale is Bronze Age leader Lord Nooth, lover and hoarder of all things bronze, especially bronze coins. He’s voiced by a nearly unrecognizable Tom Hiddleston (Thor: Ragnarok) playing an over-the-top, snooty opportunist in full-on Monty Python comedy style. Game of Thrones and Doctor Who actor Maisie Williams offers her own voice acting talent as Dug’s new friend Goona, and Timothy Spall (Harry Potter series, Alice in Wonderland, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams) is Dug’s good-natured and encouraging leader, the firmly about the old ways Chief Bobnar.
Little kids will laugh at the silliness of the characters and adult U.S. anglophiles will understand most, but probably not all, of the British comedic references. And there are many. Soccer fans will pick up on references to the sport, to Manchester United, zebra crossings, and puns that will work for fans of any sport. Want to see why Stonehenge was built? Ever seen the genesis of the electric razor? The film has already opened to positive reviews in the United Kingdom, but does not arrive in theaters in the States until later this week.
The best laughs come from the very pooch-like Hognob, who is always at the ready to play the new game. At one point Hognob gets mistaken for Lord Nooth’s servant in a funny bit straight out of a Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett skit. Amid all the comedy from a simple but cleverly written script, audiences will easily forget about the laborious filming process required for stop-motion to come to life. The film even offers a monster mash homage to Ray Harryhausen stop-motion films. British comedian Rob Brydon plays a host of character voices in the film, including a messenger bird who serves as the current high-tech communication tool, recording and repeating things Lord Nooth does–and sometimes doesn’t–want communicated to his queen, voiced by Dead Again’s Miriam Margolyes. Harry Potter series and Father Brown actor Mark Williams is the voice of Barry, one of the cave men.
The same elements that made Aardman and Park’s Wallace & Gromit, Creature Comforts, Chicken Run, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and Shaun the Sheep, make Early Man a success: authentic do-gooders, lovable oafs, witty dialogue, talking animals, very-British characterizations, good-humored stories, and the best animation around.
Good fun for the whole crew, Early Man arrives in U.S. theaters this Friday, February 16, 2018, nationwide from StudioCanal.