AWN’s resident Miscweant weighs in on the Home Entertainment release of Oscar-winning director Nick Park’s stop-motion football feature.
Did Aardman Animations’ Early Man even get a theatrical release? I vaguely remember seeing a lobby poster that wasn’t there a week later at my local multiplex, but that was about it. The movie’s theatrical footprint was so light it barely made an impression, earning a meager $8.2 million at the U.S. box office before its home entertainment release -- a sad comedown for the studio in the wake of their beloved Wallace and Gromit franchise, Chicken Run, or DreamWorks’ desperately hyped Flushed Away. (A fun film that did not need a kiddie slide next to the theater the day it premiered in the shape of a gigantic toilet.)
Early Man’s fatal flaw, in terms of U.S. box office: it’s about soccer -- or to be more precise, football, as it’s called in the movie and everywhere in the world except the U.S. There isn’t a soccer -- excuse me, foot- ball in sight anywhere in the movie’s numerous posters or its home video box. Lionsgate promoted the film as a standard “little guys take on the big bad bullies” tale…without ever mentioning what the film was actually about. Once people got in the theater they quickly figured it out -- and if they weren’t hardcore “football” or Aardman fans, the film quickly lost its appeal.
Apart from the above, Early Man has a bigger problem: none of its characters are particularly interesting: not its eager young protagonist “Dug” (voiced by Fantastic Beasts’ Eddie Redmayne), his tribe of comical cavepeople or bronze age villain Nooth (voiced with a sorta-French accent by Tom “Loki” Hiddleston.) They’re all funny, but none of them ever transcend their stock roles and make their characters bigger than the movie. The one stand-out is Dug’s porcine BFF “Hognob,” a semi-neurotic version of Gromit voiced in a Scooby Doo-ish manner by director Nick Park.
There are plenty of funny, cleverly choreographed slapstick scenes and anachronistic jokes in the movie, along with Flintstones-style animals-used-for-domestic-chores (baby gator clothespins, Dug’s dad shaving with an electric razor-shaped beetle, a zebra crossing made from an actual zebra, etc.) sight gags. A couple of funny animal characters echo earlier Aardman efforts: an annoying “message bird” who’d blend in nicely with Chicken Run’s cluckers and a bunny straight out of Were-Rabbit who’s every bit as happy as the tribe he’s their next dinner.
The film builds to a climatic soccer match between the stone age underdogs and the bronze champions with the cavepeople’s Edenic homeland at stake. There are several moments of confusing visual storytelling along the way: did Dug best a much-larger soccer player in an off-camera fight to wear his armor onto the playing field? A shot of the tribe behind a barbed-wire fence suggests they’ve been imprisoned -- but no, they’re gazing forlornly at their now fenced-off homeland.
Dug makes the acquaintance of Goona (Game of Throne’s Masie Williams), a bronze-age gal aching to get on the men-only playing field who becomes the tribe’s coach. Their advantage, she tells the rag-tag underdogs, is they play as a team, not as a collection of prima-donnas each of whom sees himself as a superstar. It’s an interesting idea -- that’s basically forgotten about until a convenient moment near the film’s end.
Four overlapping supplementals sharing much of the same footage (seeing Nooth buried under a mountain of duck poop falling out of the sky once is plenty, thank you) fill out the disc. Everyone’s entitled to an occasional misfire (Was the world really waiting for Cars 2?) and Aardman’s still one of my favorite animation studios, a plucky underdog (vs. the Hollywood behemoths) if there ever was one; I’m rooting for you guys -- wait until next year!