Early Man Goofy Fun Though It's No Chicken Run

EARLY MAN (2018)
Directed by Nick Park
Aardman Animations, 89 minutes, PG

Early Man, the latest claymation feature from Nick Park, is often as cheap as a Walmart tie, as campy as a Boy Scout Jamboree, and as thin (narratively speaking) as a tea bag thrice used. It would be complete junk were it not also occasionally inspired, really funny in places, offbeat goofy, and sentimental in all the right ways. It's a stretch to call it art, but there are far worse ways to wile away an hour and a half—as evidenced by the absolutely dreadful previews we viewed of upcoming animated features. If you have kids or nieces and nephews, you can also score some points by taking them with you to the cinema. If not, do as we did: don a disguise and scurry into the back rows when the lights dim.

The premise of Early Man—such as it is—is pretty zany. Director Nick Park takes us to the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, the one that saw an asteroid crash into earth and wipe out the dinosaurs. For the sake of the story—not because he's a Creationist—Park has ancient human ancestors present as well, and allows some of them to survive and "accidentally" begin kicking molten rocks around. Before you know it, they've invented soccer, or football as everyone in the world uncontaminated by the NFL calls it. They duly paint sporting scenes onto cave walls.

Move the clock forward to the period in which the Stone Age is about to yield the Bronze. A late tribe of close-knit and lovable Stone Agers occupies the "Valley" and lives a simple hunting gathering existence. Of course, they all act and talk like it's a British working class precinct peopled by goofballs. It's led by Bobnar, an 'elderly' chief—he's almost 32 ya' know—but our 'star' is young Dug, an idealistic kid with a pet boar named Hognob, one of Park's many cheeky jokes.* Like everyone else, though, Dug has no idea what to make of the strange cave paintings he sees in the Valley.

All is well until giant mining machines chase the cave dwellers from the Valley. Yep—it's an attack of Bronze Age technophiles that live in a city that looks like a Rube Goldberg fantasy and is populated by upper-class twits and the bread-and-circus-loving masses. Our villain is Lord Nooth, who also heads the football federation, has a serious fetish for bronze coins, and possesses no qualms about exiling primitives to a barren plain. Will the Stone Agers never again occupy their beloved Valley? Maybe. All they have to do is defeat the world's best football team. The details of all this belong to the world of animation logic and only a humorless prude would be foolish enough to label them absurd. (Well, duh!) Let's just say that Dug must recapture ancient knowledge, that he is aided by a Bronze Age girl, Goona, whose gender excludes her from being able to pay football, and that a whole lot of very silly things happen in the match between "The Brutes" and "Real Bronzio." The best parts of the movie lie in Park's visual jokes. Always look for background detail in a Nick Park production.
You get to hear the voices of people you might know: Eddie Redmayne, Maisie Williams, Tom Hiddleston, Timothy Spall…. In tone and construction, Early Man is very much like other Nick Park features, right down to the fact that Chief Bobnar is a sort of Wallace and Hognob is a bristly Grommit with tusks. It needs to be said Early Man is not up to the standards of Wallace and Grommit and that the overall script is really limp and lame. Unlike the wonderful Chicken Run in which Park essentially befowled The Great Escape, Park has no preexisting story arc to mirror. Plus, when you get right down to it, the screenplay (Mark Burton) is simply a zany Valentine to soccer dressed in animal skins—even though the amusing final credits advise us "no dinosaurs or rabbits were harmed" during filming. Watch for cameos as the credits roll. Early Man never evolves into a higher film species, but that's okay. Walk away without guilt. 

Rob Weir

* If you don't get it, Hobnobs are a much beloved British sweet tea biscuit/cookie. 

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