Early Man (2018)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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Ever since 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 left theaters and was release on DVD, Potter fans all over the world were overcome with a deep sadness as the film signified the end of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. Potter mastermind J.K. Rowling created an entire wizarding world through her best selling novels, which would eventually become blockbuster hits, and as each film was released, the universe she created kept growing and growing.  When the news of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was released, all was good in the world. I wasn’t too surprised to find out that Rowling would choose to gift fans with more of the fantastic world she created by writing the Fantastic Beasts screenplay. I mean, how on earth could she just stop writing about the Potter universe and all of its glory?

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is one of the better-known books the students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry use in their studies. The textbook was written by Newt Scamander, a famous Magizoologist (an individual who studies magical creatures). The textbook contains information that Scamander gathered from studying a vast amount of magical creatures from all over the world. The film follows Scamander on his journey to the United States in 1926, as he is performing research for what will soon become an invaluable vault of information for all witches and wizards. Scamander is perhaps the most compassionate individual in the wizarding world, as he has dedicated his life to trying to understand all magical creatures during a time when they were outlawed and unappreciated. Scamander arrives in the United States by way of New York City with a briefcase filled with magical creatures. His goal with visiting the US is to release a Thunderbird name Frank to his home in Arizona. Of course, a briefcase full of magical creatures would become quite difficult to maintain for Scamander and majority of them eventually escape and run the busy streets of NYC.

The first beast to slither its way out of the briefcase is a Niffler, a small platypus-like creature that is drawn to any and all things shiny. As Scamander is attempting to catch the escaped Niffler in a large city bank (full of shiny coins), he meets a “No-Maj” (non-magic folk, aka “Muggle”) named Jacob Kowalkski. Kowalski is at the bank attempting to get a loan to open up his dream bakery. It doesn’t take long for Kowalski to get mixed up in the wizarding world, which is pretty much unknown to all No-Majs. The two become a duo comparable to Batman and Robin, and it’s one of the best bromances in cinema history.

As Scamander attempts to locate all of his escaped beasts, he runs into trouble with The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MCUSA), and everything becomes a total shit show. The film’s female lead, Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, works for the MCUSA. She comes off as a total pain in the ass at the film’s beginning because she rats out Scamander to the MCUSA, but she quickly becomes an extremely likeable character. Tina has achieved role model status with me. She’s a powerful, intelligent witch who is out to do the right thing. It just takes her a little bit to find out what the right thing really is. Tina’s sister, Queenie Goldstein, is quite the opposite of Tina. Queenie is full of giggles and smiles, has sunny blonde hair, and sports a bright pink coat for most of the movie, while Tina is more on the serious side. I remember cringing a little bit when Queenie first makes her appearance because I assumed she was going to be the ditzy-blonde-girl type of character, but that’s not the case at all. Queenie is simply sweet and optimistic, and she is responsible for saving the day just as much as the rest of the crew. All in all, the leading ladies in Fantastic Beasts are totally impressive, but of course, I would expect nothing less from the mind of Rowling.

There are a lot of things to pay attention to in Fantastic Beasts because everything is a piece of a giant puzzle that will reach completion once the 5th film in the series is released. That’s right, there will be five Fantastic Beast films! And I’m here for that. The cast of Fantastic Beasts reminds me a lot of the cast of the Harry Potter films. Their camaraderie really comes across in their acting, and there’s just good vibes all around. The film’s director, David Yates, also directed the last four Harry Potter films, and he’s known for being a pleasure to work with. This is cinema that’s made with so much passion and love, and I cannot wait to see the next four!

-Britnee Lombas