Early Man review
It might be set in the stone age but the latest claymation epic from Wallace and Gromit creators Aardman touches on two of the timeliest issues of the coming year. First, the 2018 World Cup: this is squarely a story about football, and therefore likely to find a global audience even if its sense of humour remains lovably, colloquially English. Second, this is a story concerned with Britain’s sense of history and identity. By accident or design, Aardman have made a Brexit movie!
That could be an overzealous interpretation, admittedly, in a climate in which everything seems to be about Brexit, but the evidence is difficult to ignore. Early Man focuses on an insular, small-minded tribe who live in a giant crater, cut off from the outside world (the prologue identifies their location as “near Manchester”). They’re surprisingly diverse for such a small group, with varying skin colours and accents, and voices supplied by the likes of Timothy Spall, Selina Griffiths, Johnny Vegas, Gina Yashere and Richard Ayoade. Mop-topped young Dug (Eddie Redmayne), is inquisitive and smart by comparison with the rest of his tribe: why don’t they try hunting a mammoth instead of just rabbits? What are those spherical objects they’re kicking in the ancestral cave paintings? “They couldn’t draw rabbits back then,” the chief tells him, but the prologue has already revealed that this is the tribe that invented football, even if they’ve forgotten their heritage.
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Just as Dug starts to ponder the world outside, that world comes crashing into their hunter-gatherer idyll, in the form of a more advanced civilisation. These people have invented bronze, not to mention wheels, machines and sliced bread. With their technological edge, they easily appropriate Dug’s village and consign the tribe to work in the mines. Their pompous, greedy leader, Lord Nooth, is voiced by Tom Hiddleston in the broadest French accent this side of ’Allo ’Allo: “You ’ave no ’ome!” he tells them. The bronze agers’ city is a melting pot of continental accents and influences – a sort of European, er, union, you could say. They are in thrall to the beautiful game, and for good measure, their team colours are blue and yellow.
Defiant Dug challenges his oppressors to a football match to win back their village – despite having no idea how to actually play the game. Luckily, Scandinavian-sounding Maisie Williams defects (the bronze age team is male-only) and puts Dug’s ragtag team through a few training montages, and it’s game on: David v Goliath, or perhaps Accrington Stanley v Real Madrid.
Veterans of the “it all depends on the big game” sports movie will know where this is all going, but as with so much of Aardman’s work, the delight is in the details. The frame is invariably filled with sight gags, puns and playful little details, in an Asterix/Flintstones vein. Rob Brydon has fun voicing a pigeon that transmits its sender’s messages all too faithfully, and Dug has a smart, Gromit-like pig sidekick (oinked by director Nick Park himself). Some of the jokes will need carbon-dating to ascertain their age, but the good-natured humour never loses its fizz.
Is the film really meant to be taken as Brexit-for-juniors commentary? If so, its allegiances are not black and white, or blue and yellow. Early Man’s “Europeans” embody some very British prejudices, on and off the pitch (diving to get a penalty – typical!), but they’re also more cultured and sophisticated. Dug and his tribe are fighting to “take back control” by reconnecting with their past, you could say. But their lack of engagement with the outside world has made them backward, and a late revelation about those ancestral cave paintings suggests identity myths are not all they’re cracked up to be.
Early Man’s setting is also of a piece with Aardman’s form of painstakingly hand-crafted stop-motion animation, which is positively prehistoric compared to the flashier, computer-made family films that now dominate the box office. Aardman themselves are the little tribe fighting the giants, and putting their faith in old-fashioned storytelling and unassuming comedy. These little gap-toothed, eyes-too-close-together characters are every bit as expressive as their digital counterparts, and there’s something heartening about seeing actual human fingerprints in the clay models. Early Man does little to move things on, in evolutionary terms, but – for younger viewers especially – its straightforward storytelling and gentle humour still work a treat.