Click here for the KMR interview with director/co-writer Nick Park.
The filmmakers at Aardman have carved out for their studio a specific niche among animated films. Theirs is a humor that is sly, unafraid of a pun, and equally fearless in its embrace of the silly for the sake of silliness. It is a universe where sentiment is genuine, but never sugary, and where people are never quite as clever as the animals around them. Though, to be fair, we are talking about some preternaturally intelligent creatures. These are tall tales that are charming without being cloying, and rooted in the infinite variety of foibles found in human nature, which are observed with affection and bemusement. And so it is with EARLY MAN, a sly and witty love letter to human perseverance, porcine resourcefulness, and the absolute conviction that English football was sent to us direct from heaven.
That last bit is explained in a prologue involving a tribe of cavepeople in the neo-Pleistocene who suddenly find in their midst an asteroid carved by atmospheric friction into an all too familiar shape. The first game isn’t so much sport as it is a learning that atmospheric friction generates heat. A lot of it. And thus, soccer, as we call it here, was born. Not modern soccer, but close enough, even if the goal posts could occasionally kill the hapless goalie beneath them.
Eons pass, the game is forgotten for reasons that will be revealed later, and our tribe, safely ensconced in a verdant valley nestled in some aptly named badlands, are about to have a very bad day. It will come in the form of weaponized mammoths and proto-imperial exploitation. While the rest of the planet moved on to the Bronze Age, our tribe, isolated and complacent with being outsmarted by rabbits,, remained solidly in the age of stone, and thereby unprepared for the invasion spurred by the valuable bronze ore beneath their feet.
One thing leads to another, as things will do in a film, and the tribe’s frustrated innovator, Dug (voiced with suitable earnestness by Eddie Redmayne) finds himself in the invader’s city, surrounded by the wonders of early civilization, and suddenly realizing that the paintings left behind by his ancestors were about soccer, not hunting rabbits. It will all come down to a high-stakes soccer match between the cavepeople and the invaders’ top-notch team, led by a narcissist whose flowing blonde locks rival those of Rapunzel. Fortunately for him, and his tribe, his best friend, Hognob (grunted by director and co-writer Nick Park), the eminently capable and versatile proto-pig, is there to sort out the tricky bits and save Dug and the tribe from harm. Mostly. Think of him as the worthy successor to Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. There is also Goona (Maisie Williams), the soccer-mad townie who dreams of playing on the sacred field with the boys, who takes Dug, and then his tribe, under her wing, despite a brutally discouraging start.
Soccer looms large in the story, but those who are unfamiliar and/or indifferent are not without much to love here. Dug’s bashful romance with the Goona, avoids clichés, instead letting Goona remain oblivious to Dug’s budding feelings, which Dug puts aside in favor of saving his tribe. The villain of the piece, Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) makes a fetish of bronze with panache, but not ham as he skewers the pomposity of power in general, and the French version in particular. As his victims, the cavepeople are a motley assortment of strong women, embarrassed offspring, and one guy whose attachment to a large rock, named Mr. Rock, is accepted, even celebrated, by his peers. The gags are funny, involving beetles as appliances and surprisingly resilient toilet paper, augmented by a playful imagination that delights in filling the screen with small jokes as well as those that are broad. Goona’s stand in the marketplace is called Beaker People, and our perspective is challenged by the most unexpected of creatures. Perhaps there is even a whiff of social commentary about refugees. Why else would barbed wire make an appearance so many centuries before its actual invention.
EARLY MAN tells a ripping yarn whose outcome may be a foregone conclusion, but it does take a sprightly scenic route to get there. It’s a light-hearted romp through self-discovery and self-determination that refuses to stoop to cynicism.