Aardman Animations hold a special place in the hearts of British cinema-goers, or so one suspects. Their films are typically excellent, and quintessential in execution and humour. With Early Man they have served up a solid but unexceptional outing, and have been bizarrely stitched up by their marketing team.
Watching a trailer for Early Man after having seen the film instantly reveals a clear curiosity – for a film that is so entirely about football, the trailer is entirely, 100% footie-free. Rather than a prehistoric story about the challenges of early civilization, this is a straightforward tale of a footballing underdog in the mode of Escape to Victory. The setting is, somewhat disappointingly, relatively incidental to the plot, which does not feel so much the case in the Wallace and Gromit masterpieces or Chicken Run.
One gets the impression that some of the team wanted to make a football film, and another faction fancied cavemen. That the compromise on which they settled is nonetheless properly structured and highly watchable is a credit to them, but the purity of its purpose does feel flawed, and the execution occasionally mid-table.
If it feels an afterthought at times, the neolithic backdrop nonetheless is mined for a heartening variety of sight and sound gags, from literal zebra crossings to the designation of the “Neo-Pleistecine Age”, and Aardman’s typical animation style lends a lovely texture and feel to the world. It is a colourful and inventive world at times, with a terrorising duck a particular highlight in terms of surprise and reward.
The workaday plot sees Eddie Redmayne’s Dug attempting to save his village from the nefarious, and French, Loord Nooth (Tom Hiddlestone, preposterously) whose encampment has moved on to the metallic stylings of the Bronze Age. The only way to settle their dispute is, of course, a game of foot-to-ball, and a lovely assorted cast of British comics lend their voices to the spectacle. Most, it must be said, are underused, although this is perhaps more as a result of their numbers than the quality of their individual gags, the sadly underserved Richard Ayoade aside.
Maisie Williams is afforded plenty of time and space as the marksman Goona, who defects to help the Iron Agers, Rob Brydon gets to do some impressions of commentators, Johnny Vegas’s unique vocals are enjoyably less hoarse than normal and the lovely Miriam Margoyles pops up as Queen Oofeefa. The puns aren’t always subtle, but merit a chuckle nonetheless.
As Early Man progresses, its gags do consistently flow, and are relatively uniform in their levels of charm and harmlessness, but also in their lack of sparkle. This is a banker of a film for families, but falls short of its stellar heritage, sadly.