Early Man

This year has already seen the release of three superior films for children—The Breadwinner, Paddington 2, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower. These movies teem with visual and narrative imagination, alerting young viewers to the medium’s rich potential. They also refuse to condescend to their viewers: the films are free of the sort of infantile humor and emotional underscoring one finds in less-inspired children’s fare; moreover, they achieve a complexity of detail that requires a certain amount of visual literacy. These are movies that adults can enjoy alongside children—the pleasures they offer are ultimately ageless.

Given this healthy climate for children’s fare—as well as the steady track record of Aardman Animations—I went into Nick Park’s Early Man (which is now playing in general release) with fairly high hopes. I was pleased to find that the movie is relatively free of condescension and that the clay animation conveys, like all of Aardman’s output (the Wallace & Gromit shorts, Chicken Run, Shaun the Sheep Movie), an artisanal charm. Yet it still pales in comparison to other recent movies for kids. The story is thin, allowing little room for imaginative engagement, and the comedy uninspired. Early Man contains a nice anti-sexism message, but delivers it half-heartedly—there’s none of the emotional conviction of Breadwinner or Paddington 2. In short, it’s an inoffensive entertainment that’s suitable for children but not especially enriching.

As the title implies, Early Man takes place around the dawn of civilization. The principal character is a caveman named Dug, who lives among a tribe of well-meaning idiots (one of the opening scenes shows them having trouble hunting a bunny rabbit). The tribe’s happiness is interrupted when representatives of a more advanced civilization encroach on their glen, kicks them off the land, and proceeds to use it for a bronze-mining operation. After a spy mission into the bronze-age city goes awry, Dug finds himself in the audience of a powerful lord, who proposes a challenge: If the cavemen tribe can beat the other civilization’s soccer team in a game, then Dug’s people can get their glen back. If they lose, they will be cast into slave labor in the bronze mine.

To transform his tribe into a formidable soccer team, Dug calls on a young woman named Goona whom he meets in the bronze-age city. She dreams of being a soccer star and has spent her life practicing in secret, since her civilization frowns upon women playing sports. What happens next is exactly as you might predict: the cavemen, learning a lesson in teamwork, become the team they need to be and defeat their opponents in a climactic showdown. Also the haughty lord gets his comeuppance and everyone recognizes Goona as a top soccer talent. (The cavemen never capture that bunny rabbit, however.)

Early Man

The chief disappointment of Early Man is that the filmmakers set up such an interesting, explorable world only to use it as a backdrop for a formulaic sports comedy. Who cares if cavemen could play soccer? Not that I expected the film to teach a viable lesson in primitive civilization, but I suspect that the filmmakers could have generated a more compelling story by drawing on facts about the period than by rewatching The Bad News Bears. Far too much of Early Man concerns the characters in training and then playing the climactic game—things that could take place at any time. Many of the visual details are fun; as in the Flintstones cartoons, there are plenty of gags that imagine primitive versions of modern technology. (I particularly enjoyed seeing the tribal chief use a large insect as if it were an electric razor.) Yet these sights aren’t enough to compensate for the paucity of narrative detail.

Then there’s the lack of interesting human characters. Dug is a cipher of a hero who’s constantly upstaged by his fellow tribespeople, who in turn get upstaged by a sentient warthog named Hognob. Like Aardman’s much-beloved Gromit, Hognob often proves himself to be smarter than the humans entrusted with his care—people in the Aardman universe tend to be saintly idiots who get out of bad situations through the combined forces of luck and foolhardiness. That theme doesn’t really jive in Early Man, as the development of civilization obviously took some degree of foresight and skill. But then it’s unfair to pick on a movie for lacking a coherent theme when all it seems concerned with is delivering incidental pleasures to young audiences.