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Watching an Aardman animation is like taking a potted tour of the history of cinema and the humour of Britain. From the sinister penguin of The Wrong Trousers, who was based on Mrs Danvers from Hitchcock’s Rebecca, to end-of-the-pier sight gags about the Hello!-style Ay-Up! magazine in the Hammer-influenced The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Bristol’s finest have forged a distinctive brand of film-making, which is as slyly cine-literate as it is sublimely silly. Now, with its most ambitious project to date, Aardman fuses the spectacle of One Million Years BC with the innocent charm of Gregory’s Girl to conjure a film that director Nick Park describes as “Gladiator meets Dodgeball”. Unsurprisingly, it’s a hoot.
Early Man opens with a scratchy showreel of marauding dinosaurs, animated in the stop-motion style of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. When a meteor wipes out the giant beasts, cavemen find themselves kicking a fiery rock around – the first fumbling form of football. Fast-forward several millennia to Chief Bobnar (voiced by Chicken Run alumnus Timothy Spall) and his stone age clan, living in an isolated valley (“near Manchester”), which has flourished in the meteor crater. Theirs is an idyllic, quasi-Flintstones existence which is rudely interrupted by the arrival of metal-loving tyrant Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). “Ze age of stone is over!” declares Nooth, sounding like one of the farting Frenchman from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “Long live ze age of bronze!”
As our heroes are forced into the volcanic Badlands, plucky mop-top Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his Gromit-like porcine sidekick Hognob (charmingly grunted by Park himself) find a chink in Nooth’s armour – a fondness for football, which allows Dug to challenge top team Real Bronzio to a match for ownership of the valley. “The masses would flock to see such a vulgar spectacle,” Nooth is assured, filling his head with dreams of riches. But Dug’s tribesmen have never played the beautiful game, and it will take the help of renegade pan seller Goona (Maisie Williams) to get them match-fit and save them from a life of servitude in Nooth’s infernal mines.
Having co-directed Chicken Run and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit with Peter Lord and Steve Box respectively, multiple Oscar-winner Park here takes his first solo-director credit on a full-length feature. As you’d expect from the creator of Creature Comforts and A Close Shave, Early Man provides a crowd-pleasing cocktail of pathos and pratfalls. The voice cast are smashing, with supporting turns from the likes of Gina Yashere, Johnny Vegas, Richard Ayoade and Miriam Margolyes adding depth and diversity to the characters, and Rob Brydon doing sterling work as a parroting voice message service, and as punning football pundits Bryan and Brian.
Significantly, having never watched a football match in my entire life, I can attest that the sports gags (think Ealing meets Escape to Victory) require zero specialist knowledge. As with all of Aardman’s best work, the humour has a universal, music hall appeal, harking back to Donald O’Connor’s timelessly instructive “make ’em laugh” routine from Singin’ in the Rain. Slapstick highlights include Dug’s first encounter with a pane of glass and a tumble through rows of flip-up stadium seats, both of which recall the snappy physicality of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. Meanwhile, every frame is loaded with fleeting sight gags (an ad for BumSoft toilet roll proclaims “the world’s No 2 choice!”), many of which will only be spottable on repeat viewing.
Computer graphics are employed to enhance the sense of stadium scale, yet the primary animation still feels wonderfully physical. I spied the influence of Terry Gilliam and Tolkien in the breathtaking machinations of the bronze age city, contrasting beautifully with the Eden-like softness of the enchanted valley. Hats off to animation directors Merlin Crossingham and Will Becher, and art directors Matt Perry and Richard Edmunds, for breathing enthusiastic life into this utterly immersive world.
What’s most impressive, however, is the sheer hit rate of the gags. From sniggering at bawdy “balls” and “tackle” puns to guffawing at superbly played old-school routines (“Take him away and kill him… slowly”), Early Man kept me laughing like a giddy fool from start to finish. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit may remain Aardman’s high-water mark, but this boisterous romp lifted my spirits and tickled my funny bone. In these dark days, that’s something to cheer about.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Early Man review – stone age football’s finest hour | Animation in film