You know, I remember watching my first Wallace & Gromit movie very clearly. It was Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Now, I didn’t know what or who Wallace and Gromit were, but the unique animation alongside the eccentric, funny-strip brand of comedy was enough to make me fall in love with the series. I loved the warm-hearted tone of the series, the somewhat reserved humor, the aesthetic, everything.
The same can’t be said for studio Aardman Animations new film, Early Man. Yes, it’s still got most of the trimmings that make a classic Wallace & Gromit feature a Wallace & Gromit feature, the humor, the animation, the tone, but each quality feels like a shadow of itself. There’s less charm to this story, the humor feels contrived and more esoteric than ever, and the format of the plot is boring and generic. The only aspect left that feels as good as the old movies is the animation and tone. Yet, without the nuts & bolts that weave these comedies together, Early Man ends up feeling like a pale imitation of past outings.
Director: Nick Park
Release Date: February 16, 2018
Early Man’s trailer portrays its plot, exactly. Dug (Eddie Redmayne) is a dim-witted caveman, and so is the rest of his tribe. They’re bad at hunting rabbits, they’re bad at playing sports (more on that later,) and they’re strangely British in a period of time that in no possible scenario could make them British. They are forced out of their valley by the evil Bronze-Age Inquisitor Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston,) and Dug inadvertently gets swept along to Nooth’s Bronze-Age city. Dug then challenges Nooth to a game of football in order to secure his tribe’s land in the valley. And if they lose, well, Dug’s tribe must go work for Nooth in his mine.
You’ll have noticed that this sounds rather oddly like a Miracle or Rocky narrative, where the underdog(s) are forced to compete with a superior foe that tests them both physically and ethically. While this might have been funny as a short sequence in the film, this gag of a plot does exactly what I described. From the initiation of the challenge onward, Early Man becomes railroaded by its pedestrian structure. There’s a montage with caveman themed challenges, a moral quandary when Dug must choose whether or not to cut a deal with Lord Nooth, and so on and so forth. It’s all been done before, and done better, unfortunately.
What could have saved this plot is that sweet comedic sense that fans have come to know and love. It’s that quintessential British quirkiness that never fails to put a smile across the face of anyone who’s ever enjoyed a slice of clean family-friendly humor. Unfortunately, Early Man is severely lacking in this area as well, much to my own disappointment. Instead, there are entry-level jokes about English football teams, sliced bread, and more groaners than you can count. Maybe I’m being too critical, but I always enjoyed this tame brand of humor for the spark it brought to the municipalities of modern life. Trying to make a tame joke about the Stone Age is completely different. Instead of poking fun at the caricatures of modern day, Aardman Animations is poking fun at the caricatures of ancient civilization – an endeavor that is inherently generic.
What else is there to say about Early Man? It isn’t a bad movie, but it certainly isn’t exceptional. It has heart and excellent animation. It lacks a stable foundation. The subtleties of the humor aren’t there, and the route Early Man takes is so familiar it feels trivial. I really wanted to like this movie, given how strongly past films like Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit resonated with me. As it turns out, however, it’s difficult to get this brand of humor right. Hopefully next time, Aardman Animations gets it right.