26th Jan2018

‘Early Man’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Miriam Margolyes, Rob Brydon, Johnny Vegas, Mark Williams, Richard Ayoade, Gina Yashere, Nick Park, Kayvan Novak | Written by Mark Burton, James Higginson | Directed by Nick Park

early-man-poster

Aardman animation supremo Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit) makes a welcome return to claymation with this engaging and warm-hearted caveman comedy that’s a treat for both adults and children alike.

Set in Stone-Age England (near Manchester), Early Man centres on happy-go-lucky caveman Dug (Eddie Redmayne), whose peaceful tribe are rudely evicted from their fertile valley by snooty, French-accented Bronze Ager Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). With the aid of his loyal wild boar Hognob (assorted grunts and snorts from Park himself), Dug succeeds in challenging Lord Nooth to a winner-takes-all football match, with the valley at stake as the prize. There’s just one problem: Dug’s tribe have never played the game, while Nooth has the Real Bronzio squad at his disposal.

Thankfully, help is at hand in the shape of Goona (Maisie Williams), a plucky bronze-ager who’s forbidden to play for Real Bronzio because she’s a woman and agrees to help train Dug’s tribe if she can take part in the match. Meanwhile, Nooth’s demanding queen Oofeefa (Miriam Margolyes) puts pressure on him to win the match, forcing him to take under-handed measures.

The stop-motion animation in Early Man is as charming as ever, with a range of textures (fur, stone, bronze, etc) that help bring the models and backgrounds to life. Similarly, the character designs are pleasingly within the comfortable Aardman universe, with their round eyes and their outsized teeth, bringing an air of reassuring familiarity, despite the fact that these are all new characters. Although, that said, Hognob is as close to Gromit as it’s possible to get, at least as far as scene-stealing is concerned.

One of the key joys of the Aardman films is the fact that every frame is filled with the sort of detail that will richly reward repeat viewings, whether it’s a clever background gag (e.g. a headline about a “Woad Rage” incident) or just a piece of intricate visual detail.

The script is similarly packed with great jokes, from brilliant visual gags to witty word-play and one-liners. Admittedly, some of the jokes (such as Rob Brydon’s parroting message bird) are shamelessly stolen from things like The Flintstones, but it’s hard to complain when the laughs are this good. The script also takes a few well-aimed satirical swipes at the state of football (in a World Cup year, no less) and there’s even a Brexit allegory in there somewhere if you squint hard enough.

The voice-work is equally superb, with each of the actors clearly encouraged to have as much fun with their various accents as possible (only Timothy Spall’s Chief Brobnar is recognisable as the actor). To that end, Hiddleston is very funny as Lord Nooth, with a French accent straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and there’s strong comic support from the likes of Richard Ayoade and Johnny Vegas as Dug’s teammates.

It’s fair to say that Early Man isn’t quite on the same level as Aardman’s previous successes – the football plot is a little too predictable and repetitive – but the gorgeous animation and the high gag-rate more than compensate for any short-comings in the story-telling.

**** 4/5

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