Director: Nick Park
Screenplay: Mark Burton, James Higginson
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade, Selina Griffiths, Johnny Vegas, Mark Williams
Runtime: 89 Minutes
Early Man is the first Aardman Animations feature film production since Shaun the Sheep: The Movie back in 2015, and one of their most ambitious large-scale productions to date. Making heavy use of computer-generated backdrops to bring a sense of scale to the story of a young Stone Age cave man, Dug (Eddie Redmayne), and his struggles against the emerging empires of the Bronze Age, led by Tom Hiddleston's preposterously French accented Lord Nooth.
Its very much the baby of director Nick Park, and this marks his long-awaited return to the director's chair. Sadly, as overall enjoyable as Early Man is its one of those instances where an original idea can't quite find its feet.
The film begins rather well with a homage to the works of Ray Harryhausen, and a silent prologue establishing how Dug's original tribe members centuries earlier created the game of football out of a specifically round looking meteorite. As we see the safe mundanity of Dug's life play out it feels like a British version of The Flintstones.
But the issue comes down to the story its chosen to tell. The central conflict boils down to an epic football match to decide the fate of Dug's homeland before it is mined for natural resources, and it's sad to say that while this is a novel premise it's ultimately quite unrewarding as it settles into this setup to the big match being the only focus of the narrative over character or invention.
The novelty of the colourful cavemen characters having to be taught by Dug and Bronze Age vendor Goona (Maisie Williams) how to play football quickly takes its toll as the same one-liners (and an endless stream of football gags) are wheeled out over and over in order to fill in the runtime, and even at a brisk 90 minutes this feels like something that would have worked better as a short film to make it more light and concise.
It's not that this doesn't work, and this is certainly a fun comic premise more than the epic adventure that one might assume from the setting, but it's drawn out so much with some of the least emotional engagement of any of their previous work. It feels quintessentially British enough but there's not much to say about it or dig into because it doesn't feel entirely unique.
What keeps it watchable is the animation, which is really wonderful to see in action on the big screen as every detail of the characters movements and expressions are seamlessly animated. The digital work on the backdrops doesn't always remain constant, but the fact that it's occasionally noticeable might mean the story being told isn't quite as engaging as it should be.
Early Man is ultimately something of a disappointment given Aardman's previous track record of creative and engaging work in both shorts and features. It does work for the most part, at least enough to engage young audiences, and the vocal performances and animation are typically exceptional even when the characters and story aren't standing out.