Director – Nick Park, Screenplay – Mark Burton & James Higginson, Story – Mark Burton & Nick Park, Producers – Richard Beek, Peter Lord, Nick Park, Carla Shelley & David Sproxton, Photography – Dave Alex Riddett, Music – Harry Gregson-Williams & Tom Howe, Animation Directors – Will Becher & Merlin Crossingham, Animation Supervisor – Loyd Price, Visual Effects Supervisor – Howard Jones, Visual Effects – Axis Visual Effects Ltd, Production Design – Matt Perry. Production Company – Aardman Animations
Eddie Redmayne (Dug), Tom Hiddleston (Lord Nooth), Maisie Williams (Goonah), Timothy Spall (Chief Bobnar), Miriam Margolyes (Queen Oofeefa), Rob Brydon (The Messenger Bird/Brian/Bryan), Nick Park (Hognob), Richard Ayoade (Treebor), Selina Griffiths (Magma), Kayvan Nivak (Dino/Jurgend), Johnny Vegas (Asbo), Mark Williams (Barry)
Dug is one of a group of cavemen who live hunting rabbits in a prehistoric valley where Manchester now stands. One day, they are startled as the valley is invaded by machines of the more advanced Bronze Age people. They are driven out on the orders of Lord Nooth. Dug follows the invaders home and sneaks into the Bronze Age city to find that all the people gather and go crazy over a game of football. Accidentally thrown onto the pitch while trying to hide, Dug stands up to challenge the Bronze Age people to a game of football for the fate of their valley. The challenge is accepted by Nooth but Dug then faces the problem of trying to turn his dim-witted fellow cavemen into a team of players. Help comes from the Bronze Age girl Goonah who takes a stand against the fact that girls are not allowed to play football and decides to get Dug’s team in shape.
UK’s Aardman Animations is a company that specialises in stop-motion (usually plasticine and Claymation) animation. The company was formed in the 1976 by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, joined in 1985 by this film’s director Nick Park. Aardman gained attention with the Peter Gabriel music video Sledgehammer (1986), which featured the singer transforming into a variety of forms. What gained Aardman a cult following was the Wallace and Gromit shorts, A Grand Day Out (1992), The Wrong Trousers (1993), A Close Shave (1995) and Cracking Contraptions (2002). These are loved almost everywhere they are seen. The success of these allowed Aardman to go onto the feature films Chicken Run (2000) and Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). In more recent years, Aardman have dallied in standard computer animation with the likes of Flushed Away (2006) and Arthur Christmas (2011), as well as The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012), which combined both Claymation and computer animation.
By the mid 2010s, Aardman abandoned their experiments in computer animation and returned to what they do best. This resulted in their best theatrical work so far with Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015). This was followed by Early Man here and the subsequent Shaun the Sheep sequel Farmageddon (2019). Despite the charmed name that is Aardman, Early Man nosedived badly at the US box-office, earning only $8 million (after a reported $50 million budget) – although did come close to breakeven with some $41 million earnings internationally.
The caveman comedy has been conducted before, most notably in tv’s The Flintstones (1960-6) and films like Caveman (1981) – the opening credit ‘The Neo-Pleistocene Age/Near Manchester’ very much resembles that film’s opening credit opening credit ‘One Zillion B.C., October 9th’ – and the far more charming 2D animated The Croods (2013). The surprise is that Early Man does nothing radically different to any of these others; at most, it just creates a genial comedy.
As to be expected of an Aardman film, the show comes packed with throwaway prehistoric puns – the background of the city has stalls advertising ‘The Beaker People’, ‘Flint Eastwood’ and ‘Jurassic Pork’, the caveman football team is referred to as ‘Early Man United’, while people are told “You haven’t eaten your primordial soup.” This is particularly amusing at the climax, which involves attack by a giant-sized duck amid puns such as “caught by the old bill [a British colloquialism for the police]” and “that’ll remind him of the pecking order.”
The complaint I would make of Early Man is that it is the slightest of Aardman’s films to date – there is not the knee-slapping belly laughs of their earlier works. As with the two characters who do a prehistoric parody of match commentators, there is the feeling that some of the puns are groan-worthy. The one scene that taps the delirious silliness of which Aardman are capable of at their peak is a scene that involves Hognob the prehistoric boar sneaking in while Lord Nooth is taking a bath and being required to give a massage, amid puns about ‘going the whole hog’ and being ham-fisted. Hognob actually ends up being the most appealing among the line-up of otherwise forgettable characters – I mean, is there anything distinctive about the characters here that you can imagine them being sold as toys as Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep are?
Despite a general amiability of humour, there feels something about Early Man that merely ambles along doing what has been done before rather than creates its own path. The plot follows the footsteps of just about every sports film ever made. There’s the team of rank outsiders entering into the sports competition where they stand little chance of winning against the much more experienced team. There’s the Winner Takes All situation where everything, including the continued existence of the outsiders’ home turf, hinges on the outcome of the game. There’s the self-important black-hearted villain who is determined to cheat and bend the rules in order to win. Despite the odds stacked against them, the outsiders predictably end up winning the match.
I also suspect that part of the problem with Early Man might well be that Nick Park chooses to make a film about soccer – a game that is not played much in the US, although is followed fanatically in the UK, Europe and South America – and as a result the film encountered indifferent interest at the US box-office.