Thumbprints in plasticine and the oldest jokes in the book make Nick Park’s prehistoric animation a refreshingly tactile delight.
Director: Nick Park
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Timothy Spall, Maisie Williams
Runtime: 89 mins
Release date: 26 January 2018
“The age of stone is over. Long live the age of bronze!” So declares the imperious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) after kicking a tribe of cavemen out of their woodland valley. You could make a lot of the central conflict here – stone age versus bronze age – but one interpretation springs immediately to mind. Early Man is the latest film from Aardman Animation, Bristol-based purveyors of stop-motion. Stop-motion has always been the runt of the animation family, less popular than other techniques, and it’s easy to see the clash of stone and bronze as a struggle between the tactile traditions of stop-motion and the cutting edge computer animation that has so dominated the market these past twenty years. Plasticine versus polygons, if you will.
The film begins in the “New-Pleistocene Era” (see what they did there?). Volcanoes are constantly erupting and Harryhausen-esque dinosaurs duke it out. Then an asteroid slams into the Earth and wipes the dinosaurs out. Several ages later, a tribe of primitive humans are living in the crater, now a verdant valley. They live a peaceful existence hunting rabbits; because, quite frankly, this endearingly bumbling group don’t have the wherewithal to hunt anything bigger – their best hunter is a chunk of stone named Mister Rock. The tribe’s idyllic life is shattered when Lord Nooth turns up with bronze-clad mammoths. The cavemen’s stone spears bounce right off the new-fangled metal, and they’re soon chased out of their valley and into the badlands beyond.
One of the cavemen, the idealistic Dug (Eddie Redmayne), accidentally stows away with the bronzed invaders and finds himself whisked off to their magnificent metropolis, wood and metal the likes of which this fur-swathed caveman has never seen. There he is introduced to the wonder and excitement of football (real football, not that American fake rugby), and strikes a deal with Nooth: if the cavemen can beat the burnished interlopers at a game of footie, they can have their home back. If they lose, they have to spend the rest of their miserable lives working down a mine. So, you know, no pressure.
As you might have guessed from the focus on the Beautiful Game, Early Man is splendidly, unapologetically British. As are all of Aardman’s films, of course. The jokes are fossils older than these characters (“When I do this with my arm it hurts.” “Don’t do that, then.”), and anyone with a granddad of a certain ilk will be sure to laugh (or groan). Nick Park directs (his first feature since 2005’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), and brings his signature caricaturist style. His characters are wonderfully fashioned, exaggeratedly round or thin, all lumpen-headed and buck-toothed. A plethora of British comedians voice these blobs of clay, the likes of Johnny Vegas, Richard Ayoade, and Gina Yashere joining noted thespians Eddie Redmayne and Timothy Spall. And, of course, this being a very British film, Tom Hiddleston’s villain has to have an outrageous French accent.
The real star, though, is the animation itself. American contemporaries Laika might be pushing the stop-motion envelope (their Kubo and the Two Strings featured the largest stop-motion model ever built), but Park and Aardman still delight in old-fashioned, homespun claymation. It’s always a pleasure to watch stop-motion – that combination of tactile appearance and unreal, jerky movement – and Aardman have always taken it further. Thumbprints appear and disappear from characters’ bodies, and close-ups are a landscape of imperfections as dust and dirt and dints pop up and vanish from frame to frame. Cinema is so often concerned with keeping the curtain firmly closed that it’s a strange kind of thrill to be allowed these glimpses of the artistry behind the images.
The side is only let down slightly by the somewhat lacklustre plot. This is essentially a sports underdog story, and Park and screenwriters Mark Burton and James Higginson stick too closely to the conventions of the genre, leaving little room for sort of madcap invention of Wallace and Gromit. The animation also suffers a little from the necessities of modern film production, with a handful of CGI crowd shots threatening to ruin the doughy magic. Ultimately, though, Early Man joins the likes of Kubo, My Life as a Courgette, and Wes Anderson’s upcoming Isle of Dogs in a constantly growing army out to prove that, like these plucky cavemen, the greatest animation technique known to man isn’t going to throw in the towel anytime soon. Polygons are all well and good, but plasticine isn’t going anywhere.