After two years in the making, Aardman’s latest offering has finally arrived onto our screens. Three years after their last film, The Shaun the Sheep Movie, and arguably twelve since their last with their own characters (The Pirates!… Is based on a book by Gideon Defoe, while the Claus family has been used many times before), Early Man is a firm step back into creating original stop-motion animated stories. It also sees the return of Nick Park, the four-time Oscar winning animator, after a decade away from the director’s chair. Is a trip to the see this at the cinema truly a ‘Grand Day Out’ or should it all be ‘Flushed Away’?
Opening on a prehistoric lunchtime near Manchester, the film wastes no time in setting up its central conceit-Football. Those averse to the sport need not be concerned, with football used here in a similar manner to Escape to Victory, acting as the film’s scaffolding. While that film’s focus is on the titular escape from a P.O.W camp, Early Man chooses the themes of teamwork and friendship instead. After this quick introduction, it’s a bit jarring when the film jumps forward generations, and slows considerably, cracking out its trailer fodder. Having seen and not particularly enjoyed the trailers, I was worried that the film was not to be the joy that many of Aardman’s others have been. After a few more slightly unnecessary jumps, the film finds its feet, and decides to kick some footballs with them. Aardman is famed for its puns, and while they may have pared back their visual ones, there are plenty of one-liners, particularly those of a sporting bent. The football scenes themselves feel quite real despite the inherent silliness of the whole affair, something certainly helped by Gareth Malone’s conducting the football chants of a 750-strong crowd at Bristol City’s Ashton Gate Stadium. It’s small details like these that really make an Aardman film, going out of the way to do things that could be accomplished digitally, and it brings a real sense of craft that is missing from some other studios’ animation departments.
Character is another strength of Aardman, and Early Man’s poster banks on this by inviting you to meet the ancestors of Wallace and Gromit, among others. It’s no marketing ploy either, with the film’s lead Dug, played by Eddie Redmayne, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Wallace. Hognob, his boar sidekick (voiced by Park), seems to be a fusion of Slip and Bitzer from Shaun the Sheep, along with Gromit, who like the latter has an uncanny scene-stealing ability. This ability is shared by a stellar Rob Brydon, who as Message Bird manages to put on voices within voices, while still finding time to do impressions for the commentators. Notable too are Tom Hiddleston, using his best silly French accent as Lord Nooth; Kayvan Novak as the bumbling Dino, and Maisie Williams with her not so silly turn as the football mad Goona.
Overall then, Early Man is an enjoyable and well-crafted return for both Nick Park and Aardman. While not among the greatest films they have made together, it crackles along for 90 minutes and still shows that effort and attention to detail will get you everywhere.