When a new Aardman Animations film arrives in theaters, it's an event in and of itself, as their traditional stop-motion animation techniques put some distance between their various projects. So naturally, the arrival of their latest film, Early Man, is definitely something to celebrate, as it's a return of Aardman's trademark style and glee. However, when stacked against the canon of the studio's work on the whole, the film is a lesser affair than we've come to expect from their ranks.
After their lush valley is invaded by the likes of Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) and the rest of his Bronze Age subjects, a band of cave people stuck in the Stone Age are banished to the sparse Badlands. Fear not though, for Dug (Eddie Redmayne), a rather ingenious caveman, has an idea: they'll fight for their land in a game of soccer! Teamed up with Goona (Maisie Williams), a rogue element from Nooth's kingdom with massive knowledge of the game, there's a chance that this rag tag team of cave people just might win the day on the pitch.
In some respects, Early Man is in fact a return to form for Aardman, as their usual blend of clever humor, easter eggs, and visual whimsy is present and accounted for. There's animals that steal the show, human characters that are fantastic with a prat fall, and set-pieces that keep things moving at a pleasant pace. Not to mention, Tom Hiddleston's Lord Nooth and Eddie Redmayne's Dug respective uphold the tradition of snooty aristocrats, and the big hearted everyman that the studio is best known for, and they do so at rather zany, entertaining lengths. And yet, everything the film gets right just throws its weaknesses, no matter how slight, into an ever sharper contrast.
Typically, Aardman balances their material to give the kids a laugh, and the parents some unique laughs of their own. The difference with Early Man is that the humor is totally laser focused on the young ones, with less of the humor that winks and nods towards something more mature for the grown-ups taking part in the experience. Plus, a lot of the jokes that require a bit more understanding in the film are explained away, dumbing things down enough that the film isn't particularly challenging. So while Early Man is definitely entertainment for all, the film tends to do its job as a kid's movie just a little too well.
Still, this being a film that's created by the same studio that brought us Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, Early Man does have a streak of childish glee that's hard to ignore. While the sophistication of this film doesn't match any of Aardman's previous films, there's still fun to be had with Dug and his quest to save his tribe. The trials and tribulations faced by these Stone Age denizens and their mastery of Soccer leads to quite a few laughs at the expense of their fish out of water ways. And by time the film makes its way to the final match, the underdog spirit of any good sports film does manage to kick in, making up for the lack of humor for a more grown audience.
For a film that has the voice cast that it does, and the pedigree of its home studio, Early Man is a bit underwhelming in terms of what it ultimately produces. That said, even in this current state, Aardman Animations manages to bring some earnest joy back to the movies, in an era where post-modern commentary and cynical cash grabs tend to rule the land. It's an entertaining romp that can kill some time, and keep the kids excited with colorful panache. Adults, on the other hand, may want to enjoy this one in a more leisurely manner, rather than rush out to partake in its moderate results.