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Feet of Clay 

Aardman's trademark wit is missing from the trite underdog sports plot of Early Man.

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click to enlarge AARDMAN ANIMATION
  • Aardman Animation
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It breaks my heart to say this because I've been such a huge fan of animator Nick Park, but his latest years-in-the-making claymation opus, Early Man, simply isn't very good. The lovingly handcrafted stop-motion animation is intact, as you'd expect, since that's Park's trademark. But smart humor—subversive and satirical, while also somehow magically heartwarming—is also a crucial part of what has made his work so special. For example, the devoted yet contentious relationship between dim-witted cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his anxious, genius dog Gromit in their legendarily brilliant short films and the 2005 feature The Curse of the Were-Rabbit? There is nothing like that in Early Man. The sweet yet profoundly seditious undermining of authority and the-water-we-swim-in rebellion of the egg-layers of 2000'sChicken Run? Not a sign of that here.

What happened?

Those absences might have been forgivable if the other thing that made Park's work so extraordinary—the sending up of classic genres, like escape flicks in Chicken Run ormonster horror in Were-Rabbit—wasn't completely missing from Early Man. This is just a standard-issue triumph-of-the-underdog sports comedy that we've seen amillion times before—one deployed with no seeming awareness of all the stereotypes it is full of, or of the tediously familiar story it is telling, no matter its fantasticalsetting.

Here we have Dug (Eddie Redmayne), a caveman from the "Neo Pleistocene" era whose Stone Age tribe of doofuses—all of whom make him look smart only bycomparison—find themselves under threat from the larger Bronze Age world that has moved on without them beyond their protected glen. Dug arranges with enemyruler Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, doing an inexplicable cartoon French accent) for his tribe to compete in a soccer match with the professionalplayers of Nooth's more advanced city, with the self-determination of Dug's tribe as the prize. Will they be left alone in their backwater cave-dwelling ways? Or will theybe forced to work in Nooth's metal mines?

To call Early Man wildly anachronistic would be an understatement: The opening flashback sequence that depicts humans and dinosaurs living side by side is but thefirst of its obvious and unclever bizarre-ities. But that's nowhere near as problematic as the suggestion that less "advanced" people are literally stupid. That's nowherenear as disappointing as the movie's low humor; simple slapstick, mild gay panic, crotch injuries and "isn't it hilarious that women are sexual beings" are the most itstretches to. The puns aren't groan-inducingly bad, so much as they aren't even puns: When one caveman complains that it's a "bit early" in the morning for him to gohunting, Dug replies, "But we're early man!" That doesn't even make any sense, not even as a poor attempt at humor.

Movies about sports usually work to appeal to those of us [raises hand] who aren't into sports at all by letting the sports stuff serve as a metaphor for something larger and potentially more inclusive. But Early Man is about almost literally nothing except soccer. The "mythology" of the movie's focus is on how Dug's tribe, in even deeperpre-history, invented the game, and now only they've got the heart to win against professional players. Or something. It's strained even as these sorts of movies go. Thescript is by first-timer James Higginson and Aardman Animation vet Mark Burton, but they don't seem to have any idea what to do with it besides indulge in the most tiresome ofpredictable plots, including giving Dug a manic pixie Bronze Age dream girl, Goona (Maisie Williams), to train the moronic Stone Agers inpreparation for their Big Game.

I'm so disappointed I can barely think of any caveman-inspired quips to sum up my dismay over this movie. Is Early Man crude and simple where Aardman's otherwork has been sophisticated and multilayered? Yes. But there's no pleasure in saying so.

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