What it's about:
When a group of cavemen have their valley home overtaken by the greedy Bronze Age governor of a nearby city, young caveman Dug discovers a way to save their home: a bet with the same governor where a team of cavemen would go head to head with the city's star football team. If they win, they get their home back, if they lose, the entire village will have to work in the bronze mines while living in the deadly badlands. What could go wrong?
What we thought
However much I admire his craft, I've never really been a fan of the claymation work of Nick Park. Heck, even in terms of the wider work of the company with which he is most closely connected, Aardman, I'm the sort of lunatic who thinks their best movie is their sole excursion into CGI, Flushed Away. It's hard to deny the quality of something like Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, of course, or the achievement of their work with stop-motion animation but Nick Park and Aardman only seldom connect with me on any level deeper than that.
This is important to note because it's entirely possible that my bias totally colours my view on it but Early Man is... not good. It has some decent gags (though even more that fall flat) and, like all stop-motion animations, I'm both blown away by the amount of effort invested in turning these (in this case clay) figures into fully animated characters one frame at a time and left feeling more than a little guilty at criticising any film with this much blood and sweat pored into it. To be sure, plenty of truly terrible films are the result of an inordinate amount of work but there is something about stop-motion animation that comes very close to totally overwhelming my critical facilities so in awe am I of those who go out of their way to create feature-length motion pictures out of so painstaking a process.
And yet, when you have a company like Laika using stop-motion to create breathtakingly good films like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings – not to mention the rave reviews that Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs has received overseas (we're only getting it in July) - something as bland and uninspired as Early Man just doesn't cut it.
The characters are, almost without fail, little more than kids-animation archetypes (the human-like animal sidekick, the dumb one, the brave one, the sneering but ineffectual villain), with the only stand out being, of all things, a very effective and very literal messenger bird! As for the plot, it isn't only overly familiar in concept, there's little in its execution to raise its lazy storytelling out of cliché and predictability.
The only thing that stops it from being a total abject failure, aside for its strong animation and that it's target audience presumably won't have seen enough films to see just how uninspired and unoriginal it is, is that some of its jokes do land. Not all of them, not by a long shot, but there are enough cute sight gags, sharp one-liners and even some so-stupid-the're-kinda-funny puns to just about make it pass the time less painfully than it would have otherwise. Also, to its credit, its humour, when it works, works for audiences of all ages and it's mercifully mostly free of quickly dated pop culture references.
So, yes, maybe I just don't like the film because I am rather ambivalent towards Aardman and Nick Park but even fans of Wallace and Gromit or Shaun the Sheep must surely recognize that this is very, very far from the esteemed production house's best work.