James Cole Clay // Film Critic
Nick Park is an animation legend. His distantly British sensibilities have been as welcoming as cup of tea and a biscuit for decades now. His work at Aardman Animation includes WALLACE AND GROMIT (shorts and the 2005 feature film), CHICKEN RUN and SHAUN THE SHEEP. If that’s not ringing a bell, the warm images of his characters should jog your memory. There’s something peaceful about Mr. Park’s work that settles in nicely and chooses not to offend, only delight. And as cliche as this may sound, his work has something for all ages.
His latest, EARLY MAN – which has a bit of irony built in – continues that tradition. Despite a wonky title, this feature-length stop-motion film is as smooth and absurd as animation comes. Mr. Park’s story takes us way back to the first days of humans, when we could hardly figure out how to find food but knew how to speak English. These kind of things are easy to forgive when the charm is pumping off the screen at a rate of 5-10 smiles per minute.
The story erupts with character as we follow Dug (Eddie Redmayne), a simple young man who is part of a tribe of Cro-Magnons who have survived in the stone age by eating “primordial soup” and rabbits! But Dug fancies something more for his people. First comes a suggestion to hunt a mammoth, but that’s shot down rather quickly by their Chief (Timothy Spall). A series of events lead to their civilization co-opted by Lord North (Tom Hiddleston), whose greed lays waste to every thing in his path. Essentially, EARLY MAN is Mel Gibson’s APOCALYPTO mixed with SPACE JAM (but replace basketball with soccer), because in this reality, the cavemen invented footie. Dug and his crew must defend their turf from a monarchy that is fueled by bronze coins and (PG Rated )Game Of Thrones style cruelty. Cave drawings elude to the fact that Dug’s ancestors invented the sport generations ago.
But Park depicts the landscape as a barren bad land surrounded by magma, hard rock and a giant duck — which, I have to add, is one of the best absurdist jokes thrown out there in a while. EARLY MAN is a film with endless possibilities thrown on a canvas. If you look around, the Aardman team have crafted their world with love. There’s no other way a world so visually sumptuous could be possible.
EARLY MAN is a far less formal tale that stays true to Aardman’s gentle sense of humor, but with a primitive grit that’s built into the subject matter. This is the kind of film that has so many subtle jokes hidden throughout and others that prompt a good belly-laugh. There isn’t much to complain about in the film, except the fact that, without fail, in PG rated films there has to be a joke regarding flatulence. However, Mr. Park makes up for the misstep by introducing the audience to a giant duck and a pet boar named Hognob (voiced by Park himself).
When it comes to its finale, EARLY MAN doesn’t offer any surprises. The film finds its largest success in its beautifully British disposition and its singular animation style. The silliness of EARLY MAN won’t make any big splashes at the box office, as its going against a Marvel juggernaut BLACK PANTHER, but if enough folks hear about the giant man-eating mallard… Who knows? Anything can happen.
EARLY MAN opens Friday nationwide.