“Early Man”, the latest animation film from Aardman Animations, is enjoyable but surprisingly slight in many aspects. While I liked some of its good moments, I somehow came to be rather distant to its story and characters instead of fully engaged in its narrative, and that is the main reason why I feel some reservation toward the film.
After the amusing prologue scene shows how prehistoric men came to play soccer, the movie moves forward to several ages later and then introduces us to Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), an earnest lad who has lived with a bunch of fellow Stone Age cavemen led by Chief Bobnar (voiced by Timothy Spall). For many years, these cavemen have lived in a small but bountiful valley surrounded by a vast wasteland full of volcanic activities, and it looks like they will continue to be all right as long as they just stick to their isolated area.
However, there comes a sudden unexpected threat from the outside. It turns out that there is a civilization of the Bronze Age somewhere outside the valley, and these Bronze Age people, led by Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston), want to mine precious bronze buried in the ground of the valley. Once the Bronze Age people invade into the habitat of Dug and other cavemen, the cavemen are swiftly driven out of their valley, and they soon face the grim reality of living in the wasteland for the rest of their life.
However, Dug finds that there is a small change for regaining their valley. Not long after accidentally brought to the city of the Bronze Age people, he finds himself in its big soccer stadium, and that is when he comes to realize what his ancestors depicted in their old murals. Although neither he nor his fellow cavemen knows anything about soccer at present, Dug believes that they will be able to play soccer just like their ancestors did, so he declares the challenge against the mighty soccer team of the Bronze Age people, and Lord Nooth accepts it without any hesitation.
Of course, Dug soon sees that it is not so easy at all to teach soccer to his fellow cavemen, and we accordingly get a series of funny slapstick moments as our caveman characters try to learn how to play with a soccer ball. As watching these moments, I was reminded of how disastrously clumsy I was when I tried to play soccer along with my high school colleagues, and I was consoled to know that I was not that bad in comparison.
As some of you already expected, Dug and other cavemen come to get a big help from the outside, and that comes from Goona (voiced by Maisie Williams), a plucky girl from the city of the Bronze Age people. Although she has always wanted to play soccer, she is not allowed just because of her gender, so she decides to play for Dug’s team, and she is certainly willing to teach them everything she knows about soccer.
The rest of the story is predictable to say the least. There is an obligatory montage sequence in which Dug and his team go through a number of difficult training moments under Goona’s guidance, and, this is not a spoiler at all, their soccer skill is significantly improved. As his team’s chance of winning turns out be not as big as he initially thought, Lord Nooth comes to try anything for beating Dug’s team, and there is an absurd moment later in the film when he blatantly and impertinently attempts to fix the game for his team. Around the final act of the story, Dug comes to have some serious doubt about himself and his team as expected, but we all know from the beginning that he and his team surely come to prove themselves well in the end.
This conventional aspect is rather surprising considering that how many works from Aardman Animations delightfully surprised me a lot. I still love those ingenious comic moments of its acclaimed short films such as “The Wrong Trousers” (1993) and “A Close Shave” (1995), and I absolutely adore the bouncing spirit of “Chicken Run” (2001), “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005), and “Shaun the Sheep Movie” (2015). Compared to their strong personality and smart storytelling, what is shown in “Early Man” looks relatively plain and shallow, and I even became a bit impatient despite its short running time (87 minutes).
However, the film is not a total bore at all because it is not entirely devoid of charm and personality. I was often amused by nice humorous details placed here and there in the film, and I also appreciated the painstaking efforts put into its clay animation. Thanks to the spirited voice performance of its main cast members, the characters in the film come to us as likable caricatures, and my personal favorite character is Hognob, Dug’s pet wild boar which reminds me a lot of Gromit in “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and incidentally gives us the funniest moment in the film when it happens to give some service to Lord Nooth at one point.
Overall, “Early Man” is a minor work from Aardman Animations. I think Director/co-writer Nick Park, who directed “Chicken Run” and “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit”, could do better than this, but you will probably be entertained as much as me if you have admired the works of Aardman Animations. It is conventional and predictable indeed, but it is at least more enjoyable than “Despicable Me 3” (2017), so I recommend it to you despite my reservation.