Friday, 18 May 2018

Movie Review: Early Man (2018)


The plot: The simple life for Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe of cavemen is about to be interrupted when the Bronze Age ruler Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) kicks them out of their meadow and leaves them to fend for themselves. Desperate to save his tribe, Dug challenges Nooth to a game of soccer: If Dug and his team win, they get their meadow back. As the tribe practices the ancient sport, and Nooth prepares to make bank from the match, the heat is on to see who will win this battle of the Ages.

 
Redmayne as the rather affable lead works out very nicely, allowing bits of naiveté and haplessness to seep through without it feeling too mean-spirited. Rafe Spall as the chieftain works as the (relatively) older leader who ends up hitting a lot of narrative tropes tied to that character, particularly in relation to sports movies, and yet he never comes across as a stereotype. Part of that is down to the nimble writing at hand, as much as it is due to Spall’s seasoned delivery. Hiddleston as the villain Lord Nooth not only manages admirably with that French accent (we’ll get to the significance of that in a bit) but his foppish demeanour makes for a reasonably unlikeable but also fun presence on screen. He’s basically doing what any good cinematic villain should aim for, bringing some of that Loki experience to the production.

Maisie Williams as the football fanatic Goona works well as part of the main group, but I can’t help thinking that the under-the-surface feminism on display isn’t put to ideal use. Not as well as she did in iBoy, at any rate. Rob Brydon as both the mimicking Message Bird and as the two sports commentators for the big game finale works out well, getting a lot of laughs in the former and some nice knowing chuckles in the latter. Richard Ayoade, Selina Griffiths, Johnny Vegas (as the deliciously named Asbo, in a nice initial showing of the very British sense of humour on display), Mark Williams, Simon Greenall and Gina Yashere as members of Dug’s tribe all fit in quite well, and Miriam Margolyes as the aptly-named Queen Oofeefa makes for some fun exchanges with Hiddleston.

While the art of stop-motion grew in stature through the works of the Brothers Quay, Ray Harryhausen and Jiří Trnka, Aardman Productions is the company who brought it to mainstream attention. Not only that, they set a standard for Plasticine animation that a rare few have been able to even approach, let alone meet in efficacy. With all this in mind, saying something to the effect of “this film looks amazing” would be a tad redundant, but it still highlights the wholly iconic look that Aardman have built their reputation on. It lacks the refinement of the works of Laika, to the point where hand imprints can occasionally be seen on the Plasticine models in this film, but it also shows a very free-spirited nature to the notion of bringing those models to life. From the very expressive faces given to the characters to the detailed scenery, whether it’s the lush habitat of Dug’s tribal home or the obnoxiously garish trappings of the Bronze City, to the deep focus put into the more energetic moments like chase scenes and cavemen playing football, it all looks smashing. It’s good to see director Nick Park, the man whose work on Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run helped define Aardman and Claymation as a whole as it stands today, is still going strong.

Knowing that Aardman was borne out of Great Britain is quite evident within moments of the film starting, as a lot of the main anachronisms on show all have a very definite grounding in British culture. All of the characters within Dug’s tribe maintain their natural British accents, while the majority of the occupants of the Bronze City are either French or have accents indicative of a different part of Europe altogether. Given how much the cheese-eating surrender monkey stereotype of the French is an ingrained part of British humour, it makes sense that it’d be here. As easily I could have written this off as potentially racist, I can at least see a bigger point in this decision. Same goes for making the central plot all about association football, a sport that carries the same level of nigh-on-religious fidelity in Europe that gridiron football has in the U.S. or rugby has in Australia. These markers feel like this is a story that was meant to appeal mainly with British audiences.
The reason why that is comes into fruition through the inclusion of Lord Nooth into the plot, using the conflict between Stone Age early man and Bronze Age later man as a substitute for societal conflicts today. I specify “today” not just because of the anachronisms, as these are a staple of most modern animated films set in ancient times, but also because of what they lead to. I mentioned the near-religion football has around it in Europe, and that comes with the usual signs of corruption as most mainstream religions. From the coin-hoarding Nooth to the “voluntary donation” in order to watch the football to the queen of the City being called Queen Oo-FIFA, this has some nice snide remarks for the frequently-corrupt organisation at the heart of modern football. It highlights the joy of the sport itself, while making sure not to turn a blind eye to the inherent problems with that sport as an organised activity; this ends up going a lot further than most sports movies, and it doesn’t even stop there.
It also takes time out to highlight the differences between the two teams, with Dug’s team learning to function well as a team whereas the champions of the Bronze City are all prima-donnas who want to lead the charge. Add to that the different interpretations of the cave paintings that initially give Dug’s team the push to learn the game (they see as their ancestors setting a precedent for their involvement, while Nooth tries to spin it as them failing at the very sport they invented) and the societal commentary becomes all too clear. Knowing how isolationist a lot of British society has become over the last several years, like the still-lingering kerfuffle around Brexit, this showing of solidarity vs. selfishness feels like a particularly relevant message to be sending right now. And that, ultimately, is why this film feels as British as it does: Because Nick Park and co. want to show the British people that there are a few traditions that are worth holding onto, and some that are worth discarding. Taking an uneasy message and wrapping it up in things that are appealing to the target audience, like family-friendly Claymation and tapping into pre-existing cultural attitudes; Aardman are the kings of the stop-motion game for a reason.
All in all, this is a very strong offering from the Claymation kings at Aardman, delivering a solid sports movie with a surprising amount of subtext that speaks volumes about modern British society. The voice acting is ideal, the animation shows Aardman doing what they do best, the sense of humour relies far less on background gags than their previous offering Shaun The Sheep Movie but makes up for it with a lot of great slapstick and witty dialogue, and the thematic resonance here is particularly good, holding up a temporally-displaced mirror up to the things that Britain holds dear (football and its own cultural identity) to poke fun at the less-than-desirable aspects of those things (FIFA and the increasingly conservative isolationism of modern British culture).
This ranks higher than The Mercy, which may have a lot more emotional potency but this wound up being the more consistently-engaging offering of the two. Early Man works both as an underdog sports film and as a tongue-in-cheek look at British culture and its more recognizable cultural touchstones. However, as good as this is both as entertainment and as commentary, it still lacks the remarkable subtleties or outstanding character performances of A Quiet Place.

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