Movie Reviews: Early Man (2018)

I’ve complained in the past about the general lack of quality (or at least appeal to me) in mainstream feature animation outside of a few reliable players, but it’s important to remember that there are still companies doing good work.  Pixar may not be what it once was, but they still hit more than they miss and then there’s Laika keeping things steady in stop motion, but Aardman Animations has been also consistently producing critically acclaimed works of primarily stop-motion animation for years.  After countless shorts including three delightful ones in the Wallace & Gromit series, the British studio made their feature debut in 2000 with the much better than it should have been Chicken Run and then the enjoyable (if inferior to the shorts) Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.  After a brief sojourn into computer animation (not including a fourth Wallace & Gromit short which served as my personal introduction to their work), they returned to stop-motion with the disappointingly mediocre The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! and the Wallace & Gromit spinoff, Shaun the Sheep Movie.  

Their latest is a trip back to the Bronze Age, a trip which has no desire to even vaguely resemble historical fact.  With that out of the way and the clear sign I should turn my brain off when they depicted humans and dinosaurs living together, the focus is on an isolated tribe of Stone Age humans who are discovered by ruthless humans in the midst of the Bronze Age seeking to exploit the land and their simple rabbit hunting existence.    Instead of a mere clash of cultures, the film instead becomes a sports film, specifically soccer.  While the very British film calls it football throughout, I am petty and completely disinterested in the sport so I will side with the little girl at my screening who adorably claimed that everyone was actually playing soccer.  If you have ever seen a kids sports movie before, congrats, I don’t need to describe the plot any further.  For those who haven’t, the main event is a game between the Stone Age tribe who is unfamiliar with soccer and the cocky Bronze Age characters who are extremely talented at the sport over the right to the valley which the former had called home.

As I hinted before, this is very much a movie for little kids and I can imagine no one else.  Besides the hackneyed plot, the film is filled with bad jokes, frequently involving characters painfully pointing them out.  Considering how British the film is and how specific to the sport these jokes are, I’d say that this isn’t aimed at the American me to begin with, but I got all the jokes, they just weren’t funny.  They are all just the most literal jokes possible, frequently of “see it’s funny because it’s like modern day, but without technology”.  It’s a modern The Flintstones with all the sophistication, originality, and level of humor of that show.   It’s all so broad, self-aware, way too proud of itself to have any sort of appeal.

The animation is well done but the character design, especially for the Stone Age characters, is unappealing and uninteresting.  It’s got enough of the trademark Aardman style to be recognizably them, but here it just falls flat.  The animals are exactly the kind of shallow joke characters you’d expect from such a film complete with an anthropomorphic pig/dog and a rabbit which exists largely for wacky reaction shots after a somewhat promising pseudo-Bugs Bunny-like opening which has a sense of dark humor that the film quickly forgets about.  I won’t criticize character development or depth since this is a movie for the wee ones, but I won’t let it slip by that everyone basically has one defining trait which informs every action and is pulled from every movie of this type to come before.  The film has a talented voice cast (that is if you ignore perpetually overacting Eddie Redmayne and resident QI dunce Johnny Vegas) including Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Miriam Margolyes, Rob Brydon, and Richard Ayoade, but they are all wasted here on forgettable one-note characters.

There’s the temptation to just go easy on this considering the target audience, but I reject that.  We live in a world where kid friendly can also appeal to those whose age has crossed into the double digits and the film should be judged on that especially considering the audience here and that I can only speak for myself as I am now.  If you are just looking for something to plop your kids down in front of while you do something else, the film is inoffensive and seemed to modestly amuse the youngins in the audience.  If you are looking for something actually appealing for yourself, there’s far better options out there.  Stick to Revolting Rhymes if you want good British children’s animation (featuring Rob Brydon in multiple roles) or one of Aardman’s earlier works.  Director Nick Park is capable of so much more than this crap.