I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
It breaks my heart to say this, because I’ve been such a huge fan of animator Nick Park, but his latest years-in-the-making claymation opus, Early Man, simply isn’t very good. The lovingly handcrafted stop-motion animation, with its distinctive character design that is both goofy and charming, is intact, as you’d expect: that is Park’s trademark. But I did rather think that smart humor — subversive and satirical and also somehow magically heartwarming — was also part of what made his work so special. The devoted yet contentious relationship between dim-witted cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his anxious, genius dog Gromit, in their legendarily brilliant short films and the feature The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (from 2005)? There is nothing like that in Early Man. The sweet yet profoundly seditious undermining of authority and the-water-we-swim-in rebellion of the egg-layers of 2000’s Chicken Run? Not a sign of that here. What happened?
Those absences might have been forgivable if the other thing that made Park’s work so extraordinary, the sending up of classic film, wasn’t completely missing from Early Man. The tweaking of genres — the prison-escape flick in Chicken Run; monster horror in Were-Rabbit — in ways that made fun of cinematic tropes while also rapturous embracing them has elevated Park’s work way above the standard notion of “it’s a cartoon, it’s just for kids.” (Er, well, this might not apply to Aardman’s most recent film, Shaun the Sheep Movie, but even that one hangs together much better than Early Man does.) Park’s work had the wonderful capability of appealing to all ages and working on multiple levels that almost no other animation studio apart from Pixar managed… and certainly no one doing animation on an entrepreneurial, cottage-industry level (comparatively speaking).
But there’s nary a hint of that here. Instead, Early Man is just a bog-standard triumph-of-the-underdog sports comedy that we’ve seen a million times before, one deployed with no seeming awareness of all the stereotypes it is full of, or of the tediously familiar story it is telling (no matter its fantastical setting). I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but as a movie lover, and as a fan of that intangible subgenre of films that embrace cinema as religion while also recognizing the clichés that drive it, I feel as betrayed as I did by Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver last summer. Wright took all the geek and film-fanatic good will he built up with Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, not to mention his inspired TV series Spaced, and turned it into action pabulum that wanted us to root for a petulant, amoral, immature anti-hero. Park hasn’t quite gone full-Hollywood-junk — Early Man is far too Brit-specific for that — but it does feel as if he has thrown out the core of what made his work so endearing in favor of lowest-common-denominator dross. (I know many film lovers and my fellow critics disagree with me about Baby Driver. And they may well disagree with me about Early Man. That does not change my opinion.)
So here we have Dug (the voice of Eddie Redmayne: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, The Danish Girl), a caveman from the “Neo Pleistocene era” whose Stone Age tribe of doofuses — who make him look smart only by comparison — find themselves under threat from the larger Bronze Age world that has moved on without them beyond their protected glen. Dug arranges with enemy ruler Lord Nooth (the voice of Tom Hiddleston [Thor: Ragnarok, Kong: Skull Island], doing an inexplicable cartoon French accent) for his tribe to compete in a football match with the professional players of Nooth’s more advanced city, with the self-determination of Dug’s tribe as the prize. Will they be left alone in their backwater cave-dwelling ways? Or will they be forced to work in Nooth’s metal mines?
To call Early Man wildly anachronistic would be an understatement: the opening flashback sequence that depicts humans and dinosaurs living side by side is but the first of its obvious and unclever bizarrities. But that’s nowhere near the problem that the suggestion that less “advanced” people are literally stupid is. That’s nowhere near the problem of the movie’s low humor: simple slapstick, mild gay panic, crotch injuries, and “isn’t it hilarious that women are sexual beings” are the most it stretches to. The puns aren’t groan-inducingly bad so much as they aren’t even puns: When one caveman complains that it’s a “bit early” in the morning for him to go hunting, Dug replies, “But we’re early man!” That doesn’t even make any sense, not even as a poor attempt at humor.
Movies about sports usually work to appeal to those of us — *raises hand* — who aren’t into sports at all by letting the sports stuff serve as a metaphor for something larger and more inclusive. But Early Man is about almost literally nothing but football… or soccer, in the US. (The very British-themed football focus here is going to confound American audiences, for whom soccer is a sport little kids play, and nothing else.) The “mythology” of the movie’s focus is on how Dug’s tribe, in even deeper history, invented the game, and now only they’ve got the heart to win against professional players. Or something. It’s strained even as these sorts of movies go. The script is by first-timer James Higginson and Aardman vet Mark Burton, but they don’t seem to have any idea what to do with it besides indulge in the most tiresome of predictable plots, including giving Dug a manic pixie Bronze Age dream girl, Goona (the voice of Maisie Williams: Doctor Who, Game of Thrones), to train the quite literally moronic Stone Agers in preparation for their Big Game.
I’m so disappointed I can barely think of any caveman-inspired quips to sum up my dismay over this movie. Is Early Man crude and simple when Aardman’s other work has been sophisticated and multilayered? Yes. But I can take no pleasure in saying so.