Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
It’s disappointing that Early Man feels so ordinary and run of the mill when the stop-motion animated film has such an impressively talented cast and is produced by Aardman Animations; the same studio that was behind the likes of Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and the Shaun the Sheep Movie. It also took three individuals to write the film: Mark Burton (co-director and co-writer of the Shaun the Sheep Movie) and first time feature film screenwriter James Higginson were behind the screenplay while Burton and director Nick Park (co-director and co-writer of Chicken Run and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) tackled the story. It’s always surprising and more than a little disheartening when a film, especially an animated one which seems to rely heavily on creativity, has this many writers and it still manages to lack originality.
A tribe of cavemen led by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) have adjusted to life in the Stone Age and survive by hunting rabbits on a daily basis, but a member of Chief Bobnar’s tribe named Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his wild boar companion Hognob (voiced by director Nick Park) dream of a day where the tribe can hunt mammoths instead of rabbits and accomplish more than the average caveman. But the greedy and villainous Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) and his Bronze Age army drive the tribe out of their home in the valley and force them to live in the volcanic badlands. Dug challenges Lord Nooth’s champion team to a game of football (or soccer in the States) on behalf of his tribe. If they win, they get their home in the valley returned to them. If they lose, they have to work in the mines for the rest of their lives.
The absolute highlight of the film is the Giant Badlands Duck who has sharp teeth and is essentially Gamera since he flies around at whim and wreaks havoc where he sees fit. Supporting animal characters are also fairly amusing such as the pigeon carrier Message Bird (Rob Brydon) and the brown rabbit that always seems to escape the capturing efforts of Dug’s tribe. Some of the throwaway gags are slightly humorous as well like the chattering crocodile clothespins and vibrating beetle that serves as a razor. Lord Nooth’s armed guards that ride armored woolly mammoths wear gold helmets that leave just enough room for their nose and mustache to stick out, which seems comical in design.
Nothing else really stands out or goes out of the way to be memorable in Early Man. The story is basically just a team of underdogs prevailing when the odds are against them; Early Man is the prehistoric soccer version of The Mighty Ducks or a somewhat hairier version of Air Bud. All of the characters feel like fluff who spew one-liners from time to time. You have no preference over whether Dug and his tribe get to return to their home or not. It’s more entertaining to witness Lord Nooth’s money fetish, which is borderline inappropriate and almost funny because of it. The animated film is so predictable and uneventful that it will actually put you to sleep at times.
Early Man feels like it had the potential to be a fun and entertaining animated adventure that would satisfy both the adults and the children in the audience, but its execution feels lazy in retrospect and it doesn’t seem to try hard enough to make a long lasting impact. It’s the type of film that would be harmless if it was released straight to streaming services, but its theatrical release gives it the aura of a cinematic failure since it isn’t anything special, won’t muster more than a single half-chuckle out of its audience, and isn’t anything you haven’t seen before from an otherwise impressively whimsical animation studio.
© 2018 Chris Sawin
Yong Kuan Leong from Singapore on February 17, 2018:
Most animations, CGI or otherwise, are run-of-the-mill nowadays, no matter how promising their promotional materials sound. I suppose it's because do so assures a certain level of profit.