Friday, February 16, 2018

Early Man: Aardman lite

Early Man (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

According to the whimsical minds behind Early Man, soccer’s origins go way back.

No matter how much trouble Dug gets into, he can depend on his best friend — his
pet prehistoric pig, Hognob — to save the day.
British director Nick Park and his Aardman production team, best known for claymation superstars Wallace and Gromit, go prehistoric with their newest project: a gentle comedy set at the dawn of time, when cave folk tremble from exploding volcanoes, woolly mammoths and Jurassic-size ... ducks.

The droll production is a smooth blend of Park’s traditional puppet animation and scale-enhancing computer effects. All the characters can be recognized as Wallace’s great-great-great-many-more-greats ancestors: most particularly buck-toothed Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), the most curious and idealistic member of a small Stone Age tribe led by genial Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall).

They’re a motley bunch of meek eccentrics unwilling to hunt any game larger than rabbits, despite Dug’s insistence that tackling a mammoth might keep food on the table a bit longer.

It’s important to note, just in passing, that no rabbits are killed or otherwise injured during the course of this story ... although Mother Nature isn’t nearly as kind to Dug’s even more prehistoric ancestors, during a prologue that reveals How Soccer Came To Be.

This is merely the first of many fanciful touches emanating from Park and co-scripters Mark Burton, James Higginson and John O’Farrell. The humor is typically British: dry and mildly snarky, often relying on anachronistic touches. As an example, when confronted with a plate of sliced bread, one fellow enthuses that “That’s the greatest thing since...” and doesn’t really know how to finish the sentence.

At times, one senses the spirits of Monty Python hovering overhead.

That sliced bread remark comes a bit later in this saga, after Dug and his comrades have been driven from their beloved, forest-laden valley by invaders from a nearby Bronze Age community. These warriors are led by the pompous Lord Nooth — Tom Hiddleston, channeling every arrogant snarl he ever delivered as Thor’s half-brother, Loki — who contemptuously sniffs that history is about to render the ultimate verdict against Dug and his Stone Age clan.

And so it seems, since Chief Bobnar’s tribe can’t begin to withstand an assault by the metal-enhanced weapons wielded by Nooth’s armored soldiers.

Fortunately, Dug comes up with a desperate scheme, after discovering that the Bronze Age townsfolk go ga-ga over soccer (which, this being a British production, is called football). Witnessing this stadium-size spectacle tweaks Dug’s memory of cave paintings in his own beloved valley, and he realizes that soccer also must be in his clan’s genes.

He therefore — quite recklessly — challenges Bronze Age soccer superstar Real Bronzio and his equally talented teammates to a game that’ll decide who gets to remain in the valley. Lord Nooth is delighted, knowing that he’ll be able to charge top (gold) coin for such a momentous media event.

There’s only one problem: Chief Bobnar’s people haven’t ever seen a soccer ball, let alone played the game.

Ah, but not everyone in the Bronze Age village marches to the beat of Nooth’s preening drum. Goona (Maisie Williams), a spirited seller of bronze pans, turns out to have serious soccer skills ... but, being a girl, is forbidden to play on the sacred turf. Might she become an ally?

Just as Wallace often is rescued by the far more intelligent Gromit, Dug’s bacon frequently is saved by Hognob, his pet prehistoric pig. As with Gromit, Hognob “communicates” solely via unintelligible grunts and other noises (all supplied by Park). Hognob also is involved in much of the story’s physical humor, in a Chaplin-esque, silent film manner.

Another terrific running gag involves the “Message Bird” that represents the height of Bronze Age telecommunications, and keeps distant Queen Oofeefa (Miriam Margolyes) apprised of Nooth’s activities. Comedian-impressionist Rob Brydon handles the bird’s lines, which are delivered word-, inflection- and voice-perfect from sender to recipient.

(Longtime soccer fans will appreciate the fact that Brydon also voices the two commentators adding color to the climactic match, who are inspired by real-life sports pundits Alan Hansen and John Motson.)

One can’t help being impressed by the craft involved with bringing this ambitious story to the screen, given a cast of characters — and settings — that are far larger than Park concocted for Wallace and Gromit, or 2000’s Chicken Run. The stats are astonishing: 273 puppets made by 23 modelers during a 30-month period; 18 Dug puppets, and eight each of Chief Bobnar’s Stone Age tribe; 3,000 (!) hand-crafted and interchangeable mouths, to allow lip movements that conform to the dialogue demands.

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to be impressed by Park’s new film, than to embrace its story. Early Man is charming, but lacks the energy, hilarity and creative pizzazz that characterizes the Wallace and Gromit adventures. The humor is gentler; nothing here is fall-on-the-floor hilarious. The script isn’t anywhere near as “tight” and finely tuned as (for example) a typical Pixar production; Dug’s fellow tribes folk aren’t given enough time to establish their quirky personalities, and Real Bronzio and his teammates remain one-dimensional ciphers.

That said, the voice talent compensates for a lot. Redmayne makes Dug a boyishly eager cheerleader who nonetheless succumbs to doubt on occasion; we sense the vulnerability and insecurity in the actor’s line readings. Williams, well known as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, gives Goona no such failings; the feisty girl exudes confidence and team spirit.

Hiddleston makes Nooth suitably dastardly, while Spall’s Bobnar has the genial warmth of everybody’s favorite uncle.

Harry Gregson-Williams and Tom Howe supply an energetic score that gives this saga some additional pep.

I’ve long loved Park’s work, dating back to his Academy Award-winning 1989 short, Creature Comforts. Early Man certainly will earn a place in our home library, when it becomes available ... but I fear it won’t make more than a token dent among moviegoers on this side of the pond.

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