Aardman Animations’ latest sends comedy back to the Stone Age… but not in the way you might hope.
We open, according to a subtitle, on Neo-Pleistocene Earth, tracking away from a furiously erupting volcano. Dinosaurs tussle up on a ridge; a tribe of primeval persons are exuberantly beating the tar out of one another; all of which are expertly made of plasticine. A second subtitle appears: “Somewhere Near Manchester”. That at least merits a chuckle.
The film Early Man descends from there, however; much like the meteor that impacts from the heavens. Instead of the extinction-level event you might suppose (though on a purely cinematic level that might have been a mercy), our ancestors get a valley to call their own. And what’s more – when scalding-hot meteorite comes in contact with unprotected foot – a whole new pastime.
Written and, in his first solo outing, directed by Nick Park, Early Man’s points of comedic reference fall squarely between two posts: cavemen and football. A fairly broad target, you’d suppose; and yet, over the course of a hundred minutes – a football game plus injury time – it manages to miss the goal entirely.
Generations on from the opening scene, aspiring mammoth hunter Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) lives in peace and security with a tribe of oddballs led by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall). All, to various degrees, good-natured, dim-witted, clumsy, and dull. To call them one-note would be generous: there’s the ginger one, Asbo (Johnny Vegas), who says “Champion” a lot; the Richard Ayoade one who whines “Mum”; his mum, Magma (Selina Griffith).
They’re hunter-gatherers now – well, rabbit hunters to be precise; inept ones to be more so – and the beautiful game has been forgotten; commemorated only in ambiguous cave paintings.
However, when a Bronze Age army invades the valley, under the command of the snooty Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston doing a French accent by way of Monty Python), forcing them into barren badlands, the tribe’s only chance is to challenge them to a football match. To reclaim their home, they will have to defeat the premiere team of the ancient world, Real Bronzio.
Even The Angry Bird Movie, for all its offences against comedy, largely managed to make actual puns. Early Man compounds this further by, like a child who’s made a mess of the carpet, half-heartedly pointing out the joke that it has failed to make (in reference to Hognob the pig: “I hope they don’t do anything rash. Rash… like rashers.”). Comedy tip: I’ve found that pointing out something that isn’t in itself funny rarely makes it funnier.
Even a talented voice cast, including Maisie Williams, Rob Brydon, and Miriam Margoyles (as an ostensibly French queen with a British accent), can’t do much but try to bring some enthusiasm to their line readings. Based on behind-the-scenes footage, they all seem to have had some fun in the recording booths; that despite the tedium of the film’s anti-gravity script. Simply put: nothing lands.
The film aims for groan-worthy – which with visual gags like “Flint Eastwood” would seem like a foregone conclusion – but its attempts at humour are so overwhelmingly obvious as to prevent even this. You find yourself preempting every gag and will probably find yourself coming up with a dozen better ones on your walk back to the car, possibly while asking yourself questions like, “How do you manage to rob Claymation of its charm (you’d assume it’s innate)?” and “How can something that must have taken so much effort simultaneously be so lazy?”
Just about the only genuine pun in Early Man is the film’s title – guess which football team Nick Park supports – and that must surely take the blame for inspiring the whole endeavour.The extra half star is out of sympathy for the animators who put untold effort into painstakingly animating each syllable of each character’s every word, just so they can fail at basic wordplay. It wasn’t worth it, nor is worth yours.
A film that makes Ice Age look like Airplane! by comparison, Early Man takes its cues from Escape To Victory, but succeeds only in reminding us how much better Chicken Run was in drawing inspiration from The Great Escape. Coming from the creators of Wallace & Gromit, it’s a bit of a kick in the balls, really. In this case, to misquote War Games, the only way to win is not to play.
Go see Coco instead.