Aardman Animations is not the first place I look to for surprise in my stop-motion animated media. The folks behind the A Town Called Panic series thrive on chaos & comedic surprise; Laika Entertainment continually surprises in the technological advancements they bring to stop-motion as an artform in every release (most recently in the jaw-dropping Kubo and the Two Strings). Aardman, for their part, are the picture of consistency. Brands like Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep are consistently clever & adorable, but in the exact way you’d expect from Aardman, who have been adorable & clever for decades running now. That’s why I was confident that I knew exactly what to expect form Aardman’s newest release, Early Man. Advertised as the studio’s take on caveman life & follies in the Stone Age, I expected a Wallace & Gromit-style romp flavored with anachronistic jokes about volcanoes & dinosaurs. Early Man starts exactly that way, borrowing a few gags form The Flintstones where prehistoric creatures are employed as household appliances – baby gator clothes pins, buzzing beetle electric razors, etc. After that early business of place-setting, though, the movie surprised (and delighted) me in its choice of genre, unexpectedly functioning as a . . . sports movie? I did not see that coming.
Eddie Redmayne voices our protagonist caveman (the most likable he’s been outside his weirdo, pseudo-drag performance in Jupiter Ascending), a plucky go-getter named Dug. His eternal optimism comes in handy as his small tribe of cave-dwelling rabbit hunters are pushed out of their native land by an invading, more technologically advanced society (lead by another frequently unlikable Brit, Tom Hiddleston). The clash is an absurd literalization of the Bronze Age pushing the Stone Age out of existence, but not any more absurd than the battle used to determine which tribe will maintain possession of the contested land: a soccer match. Early Man immediately details the accidental invention of soccer in its prologue, then briefly drops the subject until it gradually becomes a very faithful participation in a traditional sports movie template. The film is much closer to the irreverent sports comedy antics of Shaolin Soccer than anything resembling a sports drama (as is natural from a stop-motion animated Aardman release), but its plot is a conventional underdog story about sports novices preparing for The Big Game against the best, most arrogant team in the land, with the exact results you’d expect. That genre choice might come as a surprise to any American audiences who stumble into the picture (not many, I’m guessing; the theater where I saw it on opening weekend was near-empty); I don’t think there was a single soccer ball featured in the film’s domestic advertising.
Genre & plot are obviously among the least important facets of any Aardman release. Early Man’s cavemen dolts, with their dopey pig snouts & overbites, are adorable buffoons, especially in comparison with their Bronze Age Adonis enemies. The movie even sidesteps common problems with these traditionalist, throwback kids’ movie narratives by making sure to include a race/gender-diverse cast of characters and no extraneous romance plot. The world these prehistoric goofballs occupy is also crawling with ridiculous creatures that often steal the show: a (sorta) anthropomorphic rock, a meteor crash-surviving cockroach, a hog who thinks he’s a dog, (perhaps most significantly) a fanged kaiju-sized duck, etc. Soccer is merely a backdrop for these creatures’ & cavemen’s nonstop barrage of Aardman-style goofs & gags, which are just as adorable & clever here as they always are.
Even though they rarely catch me by surprise, I love Aardman’s style just the way it is (bad pop music and all). I find it dispiriting that the studio isn’t Minions-level popular in America. There’s likely nothing that could save this film’s presumably dire domestic box office returns. Anyone willing to show up in the first place is likely only driven by leftover goodwill form the days of Wallace & Gromit, with a only a few new fans won over along the way. Still, I appreciated the unexpected genre shift in Aardman’s usual, adorable buffoonery here. Sports movies aren’t typically my genre of choice, but it was lovely to see Aardman deliver a genuine surprise while remaining true to their regular comedic tone. Keeping their consistent look & humor fresh might actually be a question of future genre experiments. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (lightly) tested horror waters for them in the past. Their upcoming Shaun the Sheep movie Armageddon looks like it dabbles in sci-fi. I likely would have enjoyed Early Man all the same if it hadn’t adapted Aardman’s style to a sports movie mold, but it might just be that exact kind of genre experimentation the studio needs to keep its loyal audience on their toes.