Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Film Review: Early Man is Aardman Animation's first major disappointment

There's something overwhelmingly sad about a great production company releasing a disappointing film, especially when said film has a genius core concept and a terrific cast. It's as if the stars align only to lead you down a false sense of hope - indeed, disappointing films are a lot worse than ones where you never had much hope to begin with. Early Man, the latest feature by the renowned Aardman Animation, comes coupled with that very same crushing disappointment. It isn't even just that this isn't to the same brilliant standard as their other work, I'd go as far as saying it's Aardman's first genuinely poor film.

We find ourselves in the Stone Age (in Manchester, we're told by a title card in one of the film's few funny moments) where a small tribe of cavemen including Dug (Eddie Redmayne) live peacefully if mundanely in a small valley. Suddenly, their valley is taken over by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), the leader of a Bronze Age city where a giant football stadium is built. After some bartering and pleading, Nooth proposes that he will relocate his city and leave Dug's tribe in peace if they can beat his champion team in a football match. Inspired by the cavemen's history of football, Dug accepts the offer and, with the help of Bronze City townsperson Goona (Maisie Williams), attempts to train up his tribe to win the match.

It's a brilliant set up, as wacky as it is irresistible, but Mark Burton and James Higginson's script never really mines it for its full potential. Slapstick comedy rolls in fast but the film lacks the energetic pace of say The Shaun the Sheep Movie to make this style of humour work - most of it lands awkwardly and without any real punchline. Besides a late saving grace in the form of two football commentators (whose dialogue is brilliantly inspired and endlessly funny) the film's script lacks any wit or spark, seemingly carried away by the bizarreness of its premise and assuming its work is already done. There's the odd clever visual gag here and there but Early Man is a frustratingly laughless experience, making you long for the more comedic nature of Aardman's Chicken Run or Flushed Away.

As well as lacking humour, Early Man's characters barely leap off the screen either. While Dug himself is likeable enough - mostly due to Redmayne's infectious voice performance and the film's quirky character design - there's never a sense that we're watching anyone particularly memorable. Granted, not every film Aardman release needs to serve up a roster of unforgettable characters, but Early Man comes with the impression that it isn't really trying. Keeping Dug's relationship with Goona purely platonic is smart, but even then their friendship doesn't exactly glow. Character motivations range between weak and predictable, and whenever the film has a moment of celebration or emotion it's very rarely felt. Everything just comes across a little bit under done and a little bit lazy. 

While there's something to be said for a film that rolls with its simplicity and doesn't long to be anything more, Early Man takes this spirit too far. Almost everything here is cheap and easy, resulting in a film that never capitalises on its various ideas and ultimately collapses before it crosses the finish line - and the film barely crosses the 90 minute mark. I saw Early Man in a crowded cinema, filled with families and groups of all ages, and it wasn't tough to notice the lack of enthusiasm about what we'd all just seen once the lights came back on. Aardman's lightheartedness and stop motion animation may always keep kids entertained, but this could be their first film that loses the love from anyone above the age of ten. Early Man has the makings of a Premier League team, but it lands more like Second Division.

In A Sentence

Despite a star-studded voice cast and a joyously offbeat premise, the frustratingly superfluous Early Man never turns its assets into anything more than a weak-limbed, kid-friendly diversion.

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