February 16, 2018
In the “animation war,” Pixar is usually the house that rises to the top of most people’s lists, and with good reason: their films are heartwarming, they always have wonderful messages, and the detail in their animation is to die for. This being said, my allegiances have always laid across the pond in the U.K. with Aardman Animations. Known for their stop-motion claymation, their films harken back to simpler times. And, as one of the only studios left utilizing such a medium for animation, they’ve always stood out as creative masters of their crafts. Even better, their films are funny as hell, employing a drier sense of British humor that, like a fine wine, gets better with age. After a brief stint in the computer generated animation field with Arthur Christmas and The Pirates: Band of Misfits, Aardman cut off their deal with Sony Pictures Animation and returned to their classic stop-motion with 2015’s Shaun the Sheep Movie and now 2018’s Early Man.
Set at the end of the Stone Age, Dug (Eddie Redmayne) is a young caveman living in a tribe in a volcanic valley. The peaceful, bumbling existence of the tribe is soon upended when a highly advanced army of the Bronze Age, led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), attacks their valley and forces them out. When Dug is able to infiltrate the walls of the Bronze Age city, he meets Goona (Maisie Williams), a shopkeeper with a goal of being a football (soccer) player. When Dug finds himself face-to-face with Lord Nooth, they soon settle a score: if Dug’s tribe can beat the undefeated football team of Real Bronzeo, they can have their valley back. With his bumbling tribe and Goona, Dug must teach them to master the sport of football to preserve their way of life.
Early Man is incredibly charming and very funny at most points of the film, even though the film is one of the weaker entries in the Aardman canon. Even as the lesser of the non-Sony films, there is ten tons of fun to be had in Early Man. The animation is more stunning than it’s ever been, while still retaining that unmistakable Aardman charm that makes them so wonderful. The voice acting is superb, with many recognizable actors going out of their comfort zone and providing some truly out-there performances.
But the humor is also a bit of the downfall of the film. With as much material as the film has to work with, I often found that Early Man occasionally takes the easy way out on many of the joke. It relies a lot more on slapstick than clever wordplay and unexpected twists that Aardman so reliably nailed in the past. Even Shaun the Sheep Movie was 100% wordless and managed to get some gut-busting laughs in there with physical humor that never felt cheap. Every two great jokes in Early Man is followed by with one not-great joke.
Still, when Early Man flies, it soars. It’s creative and clever without feeling like it’s trying too hard, with an effortlessness that almost masks just how much artistic craft has gone into this impeccable looking film. Early Man might not be Coco-level beautiful, but given that Early Man is an independently produced animated film manually made frame-by-frame by a small team of creators, the effect is just as stunning. Claymation is such a classic medium of animation that, no matter how advanced computer animation becomes, it always feels welcome and incredibly impressive.
While Early Man might struggle in a few departments, it’s hard to care about the shortcomings of a film made with such an immense amount of love and care. Not only is the film a touching piece on family and teamwork, there’s an amazing amount of heart from behind the camera that is felt in every frame. There lies the best part about Early Man: its heart.
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5