Aardman Animations style is an uniquely quaint and distinctly British take on even the simplest stories, whether it’s Wallace and Gromit reckoning with their newest inventions, or Shaun the Sheep’s silent adventures through a bustling city. Aardman has always told fairly original stories with a quieter touch; both factors that have separated them from usual animation houses, and made Aardman one of the more pleasantly surprising animation studios. With their seventh film, Early Man, Aardman has done something truly nontraditional for them: they’ve made their first disappointment.
Despite a standard studio house style to their characters, the stories Aardman has told have been unconventional, like chickens planning a prison break in Chicken Run or the strangely scientific lean to The Pirates! Band of Misfits. But ever since The Flintstones debuted in 1960, and the rush of animated cavemen films like The Croods, Ice Age, and The Good Dinosaur, the cartoon caveman is at this point a hackneyed idea. If anyone could breathe new life into this sub genre, it’s Aardman. Yet instead of pulling out exhausted tropes of just one type of film, Early Man is also a sports comedy, which leads to its own set of mediocre, tired jokes.
Dug (voiced by an unnoticeable Eddie Redmayne) is a member of a Stone Age tribe, hunting rabbits and enjoying their simple, idiocy-filled lives in their peaceful valley. Their Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) just wants to laze about, ignoring Dug’s protests that the tribe should reach for larger goals, like hunting mammoth or buffalo.
Bobnar’s tribe is kicked out of their valley by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), a man of the Age of Bronze that states the Stone Age is now passé. Lord Nooth plans on digging for ore in the tribe’s valley, despite how hard the tribe fights back. After Dug is accidentally taken back to the land of Bronze, he strikes a deal with Lord Nooth: Bronze versus Stone in a game of soccer. If Bobnar’s tribe wins, they get to keep their valley. But if Lord Nooth’s professional team of arrogant greats wins the match, Bobnar’s tribe will be forced to work in Nooth’s mines.
From the moment soccer in introduced as the deciding factor in Early Man’s plot, it’s clear the film will become a stream of training montages, unexpectedly great players and underdog victories. Interspersed in is a unusual amount of slapstick humor for Aardman, mixed with Flintstones-level jokes, such as miniature alligators being used for clothespins, or a beetle that doubles as a razor. The usual Aardman wit only comes out sparingly, like when a giant mallard attacks the Bobnar tribe, or Rob Brydon stealing the show as a messenger bird who faithfully recreates the messages given to him. But these moments are few and far between, especially among such weak material.
Director Nick Park has worked with Aardman for almost thirty years, directing Chicken Run and some of the most notable Wallace & Gromit stories. But it’s the screenplay from Mark Burton and James Higginson that taints Park’s solid record. Both Burton and Higginson have worked for Aardman for decades as well, but with writing credits on films like Gnomeo & Juliet and Aliens in the Attic from Burton, it’s easy to see where Early Man went wrong. Early Man has a level of laziness at the writing level that has been completely avoided so far in the Aardman legacy. Aardman could make this material work, but at almost every opportunity, Early Man takes the easiest routes, making ordinary decisions in a story that begs for something different.
Early Man is run-of-the-mill for Aardman, a studio that has proven for decades to be anything but. Much like how Pixar took seven films to make their first mundane movie with Cars, Aardman’s seventh film is equally banal, a cute but bland film that will only appeal to the youngest of audience members. Aardman Animations has always been in the Bronze Age, but with Early Man, they’re backtracking into the Stone Age.