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Early Man
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by Jay Seaver

"Delightfully daffy, whether you call if caveman football or soccer."
5 stars

There's a good chance that the children for whom "Early Man" was made have never heard of its creator's other work - Nick Park's last short work as a director was ten years ago, and his last feature three years before that. He's kept busy as a producer, sure, but if I tell my nieces that "Early Man" comes from the guy who made "Wallace & Gromit", it'll mean nothing to them, even beyond how they may not really get that specific people make movies. Nevertheless, it's good for those of us who are old enough to remember to see him back, and the kids will really appreciate it even if they don't know he's made things before.

It brings its viewers to prehistoric times, when a small tribe of cave-people lived in a secluded valley surrounded by badlands, getting by hunting rabbits (badly). Dug (voice of Eddie Redmayne) is a bit more ambitious, although Chief Bobnar (voice of Timothy Spall) sees no need. It could be a useful trait, though, as a group of people who have mastered bronze move in and drive them out of their valley and Dug, back against their wall and seeing that the group is obsessed with sport, challenges their leader, Lord Nooth (voice of Tom Hiddleston), to a game of football(*). Sure, Dug has only seen a couple minutes of the game and the rest of his tribe hasn't seen that, but he soon makes the acquaintance of Goona (voice of Maisie Williams), a super-fan despite the team's no-girls-allowed policy.

(*) or "soccer"; I'm just going by what they use in the movie.

It's an utterly daft story that fits nowhere in actual history, but it's also delightful; Park and his crew of fabricators and animators have built themselves a world where the familiar and the fanciful can meet up in almost any way, but it's not just a matter of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. There's a careful balance between the winking comedy of seeing present-day things transposed into a primitive setting and just getting weird, and when Dug first regains consciousness inside the Bronze-Agers' city, what follows is a genuinely delightful sequence as the filmmakers are very careful that he's never too familiar with things he shouldn't understand, even if they're familiar to the audience. Park captures just enough of how genuinely scary finding oneself in a strange new world can be to strike a chord but also lets Dug's curiosity push it back so the audience can enjoy the clever, playful environment on display.

And there's a lot of funny stuff going on. Park and production company Aardman Animation have never seemed like the type that would feel slighted by having their work called cartoons, and this film is filled with well-done slapstick from minute one, which is roughly when a meteor hits the ground and the laugh at a bug taking out sunglasses to shield its eyes from the explosion is amplified when you realize it's a cockroach, which can supposedly survive any sort of apocalypse. The rest of the physical comedy is less destructive, but it's beautifully executed, whether in the form of an impressively drawn-out demonstration of how something is funniest if it happens three times or a quite believable explanation for why one doesn't use one's hands in football. It's well-spaced - purely physical comedy can be exhausting even in a relatively short movie - but the space in between is filled with dry comedy, both for how the cave-people are often dumb but pure and how Nooth is the sort of oily villain frustrated to be surrounded by people a hair stupider than he is. It will probably be a fun movie to freeze-frame, with the market full of humorously-named stalls and crowd scenes full of hand-crafted puppets. There's never more than a minute or two without a little chuckle.

They're provided by an impressive voice cast, although not one really trading off their voices. Eddie Redmayne can often be a showy actor in live-action things, but he's actually pretty restrained as the voice of Dug, giving him a simple earnestness an non-ostentatious humility. That's especially true compared to Lord Nooth, where Tom Hiddleston dives into a foppish manner of speaking that recalls early-twentieth-century royals or Graham Chapman's authentic but hilarious accent in Life of Brian. There's an expressiveness to Maisie Williams's Goona that works with how Aardman's plasticine characters don't really encourage wild shifts of emotion, and a laid-back friendliness to Timothy Spall's chief. I suspect some of the other voices will be much more recognizable to British audiences than American ones, but they're all in sync with the laid-back, entertaining script from Mark Burton and James Higginson.

The group gets to voice stop-motion animation that is both terrific and idiosyncratic. The characters are all recognizable as Park/Aardman creations with their big teeth and beady eyes under protruding brows that somehow still register as friendly, but they're also just a little more polished than they have been in previous films, with fewer fingerprints on the material and stiff movements that might mark them as quite so homemade. It's an evolution that fits the film, though - not only does it allow some CGI augmentation to fit them in a larger, stranger world, but if the bulk of the last act is a football match, the whole film needs to be a bit quicker-paced and smoother than what Park's done in the past.

That's hardly a problem, though, especially with this film targeting a generation of kids raised on digital animation. That generation won't know Wallace & Gromit, but after seeing this charming movie, they'll certainly be ready to be introduced.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31510&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/10/18 20:16:50
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2/21/18 Bob Dog Aardman's charm brought to football! 5 stars
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