Early Man Review
The land is covered in volcanoes, a harsh barren environment that is home to dinosaurs and warring tribes of cavemen. Though the scene looks as though it could have been taken from a Ray Harryhausen film or set on Skull Island, it is actually set somewhere near Manchester. When a spherical asteroid crashes into earth - wiping out the giant lizards but sparing the small band of cavemen - it is too hot to hold and so the tribe starts to kick it about and a game is born. Years later, Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his Stone Age tribe of rabbit hunters live happily in the asteroid crater now a densely wooded valley. That is until they evicted by the Bronze Age and a tribe lead by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). Dug must convince his pals and neighbours to play and win a game of football against Nooth and his team to get their land back.
I will always go to bat for stop-motion animation, especially if it comes from local Bristol based studio Aardman, creators of Wallace and Gromit. The company has something unique about them; a quality that is quintessentially their own. Imparting that charm is what brings their creations to life. This was the case with Chicken Run, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! and it was certainly the case with Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. There is so much detail in each shot, all the little props which either tell its own separate story or a gag that is only on screen for less than three. That said I found Early Man rather disappointing.
The story is your standard underdog sports movie, seen a million times before with all its conventions and clichés which sadly, Early Man does not challenge or change, unlike their vegetarian horror film Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Instead what we get is a tired plot without any stakes because we already know the outcome. We have all the standard beats including the training montage, the team doing well, the bad guy undermining the hero's self-esteem (which nearly throws the match), until the inevitable victory.
The problem is that Early Man feels small, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, is also small set in a tiny village and based around a vegetable competition, Chicken Run is set on a chicken farm, however, Early Man, sets its scope in an epic world, Mordor-like vistas of hellish landscapes, giant creatures and a battle to defend a home from a tribe with superior technology. The world, however, feels empty and flat, too much like the stages that the sets were built on. It doesn't help that the main plot revolves around football. That British eccentricity is lost instead set amid the international appeal of football it doesn't feel endearing. It feels stilted and awkward.
No matter how much charm Nick Park tries to coat over the foundations, it is clear that the Aardman formula is going stale and cracks beginning to show. Then, when you compare this to the work of companies like Laika, and Wes Anderson's recent film, Isle of Dogs (which has its own problems) who have been pushing the boundaries of technological development, spectacle and artistry as well as more in-depth character animation, Aardman. Which while perfecting the more subtle character performances has not really developed since 2008 when Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit first hit UK cinemas.
Our main hero Dug played by personality vacuum Eddie Redmayne has no defining characteristic or motivation outside the simple, good-natured hero who must save the day. The same can be said of the other tribe members, who try to provide flat visual humour, the best of which involves a duck and the art perspective but which still fell a little flat. The villain Lord Nooth, played by Tom Hiddleston, is fine like a cardboard cut-out of a children's television bad guy. Maisie Williams plays Goona, a Bronze Age vendor who wants to play football, so switches sides to play for the caveman. She also has a weird accent. The only remnants of a spark is in a cameo by Rob Brydon who provides the voice of a messenger bird stealing every scene he is in and reminding us of what Aardman can be.
StudioCanal distributes the film on Blu-ray and they have done a decent job in the construction of the disc. The film is presented in 1080p with a 1.85:1 aspect ration. The film, despite its disappointingly bland quality, still looks good thanks to the use of Canon EOS-1D X cameras which means that you can really see the thumbprints on the puppets as well as every strand of hair on pet pig Hog-nob. There are some issues with the compositing of digital elements in the film and artificial blurring that can cheapen the screen fidelity but apart from that, the film looks crystal clear. This, as well as a Dolby digital audio track, makes the sound design really stand out, Choir Master Gareth Malone conducted the crowd sounds.
The disc also comes with a whole host of extras including commentary with director Nick Park and editor Sim Evans-Jones, which contains a list of influences, the comparisons between the CG images and what was in stop motion. There is also an abundance of what feel like promotional featurettes including: Birth of Early Man, Evolution of Early Man, Match of the Clay, Nick Park: Massaging the Funny, The Valley Meets the Bronze, Hanging at Aardman Studios: A Workshop Experience and Before the Beginning of Time Crafting Early Man. By the end these extras all begin to feel rather repetitive but provide a great deal to salvage the release for fans of the film, allowing shallow glimpses into the creative process of making the film.
Early Man is a disappointing film on home release it is a lacklustre and clichéd sports film with stale jokes and only Aardman’s sterling reputation holding it together. The extras do something to market the film as a more lengthy experience, but the repetitive and slightly more promotional nature of the features calls into question what could have been on the disc.