Early Man, Aardman Animations’ latest stop-motion feature, is both too British and too childish to attract a wide audience.
Does that mean only British youngsters are capable of experiencing its intended effect? That’s sadly not too far from the truth in this surprisingly dull effort by director Nick Park, the man behind the Wallace & Gromit films and Chicken Run, who here churns out an uninspired tale about soccer (okay, football…) — a detail that cleverly wasn’t in the film’s trailer.
The narrative focus is so unexpected that the sports introduction feels like a fleeting, fairly good joke that will soon give way to something more substantial, then becomes the crux in a film already already handcuffed by ugly character design and dumb puns.
Awkward nearly from the get-go, Early Man centers on a peaceful, rabbit-hunting caveman tribe led by Chief Bobnar (voiced by Timothy Spall) and energetic No. 2, Dug (Eddie Redmayne), the latter of whom, like a good Disney princess, dreams of something more from life — like hunting mammoths.
Chased from their home by technologically-advanced intruders, the tribe fears all is lost while Dug accidentally (and somewhat inexplicably) finds himself transported to the invaders’ Bronze Age city.
After an entrance into the metropolis, pretty much the film’s lone visually interesting moments, a bumbling series of events lands our “hero” on the field of a professional football game, during which it’s confoundedly revealed that head honcho Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, probably having a lot of fun in the recording booth) and his underlings are French.
Carted off to certain death, Dug has an epiphany that his people were once great footballers and challenges the home team to a match for the chance to reclaim the valley, setting off a predictable sports plot barely enhanced by its imaginative setting and overall potential.
Other than the bizarre creativity of a giant, bloodthirsty duck, the only consistently amusing aspect of Early Man is the cavemen’s dog-like warthog “pet” Hognob, though Rob Brydon (The Trip films) briefly redeems the proceedings as a messenger bird — only to add to its disgrace by voicing dual cringeworthy commentators during the big game.
Frustrating on the level of the comparably empty The Boxtrolls, Park’s film is an immense waste of time and talent. Now it’s up to Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs — and, in 2019, Aardman’s own Farmageddon: A Shaun the Sheep Movie — to restore honor to modern stop-motion features.
Grade: C-minus. Rated PG. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark