Having abandoned their experiments in 2D animation, Aardman have returned to what they do best in the last few years. This resulted in their best theatrical work so far with Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015), followed by Early Man here. Despite the charmed name that is Aardman, Early Man nosedived badly at the US box-office, earning only $8 million (after a reported $50 million budget) although did come close to breakeven with some $41 million earnings internationally.
The caveman comedy has been conducted before, most notably in tvs The Flintstones (1960-6) and films like Caveman (1981) the opening credit The Neo-Pleistocene Age/Near Manchester very much resembles that films opening credit opening credit One Zillion B.C., October 9th and the far more charming 2D animated The Croods (2013). The surprise is that Early Man does nothing radically different to any of these others; at most, it just creates a genial comedy.
As to be expected of an Aardman film, the show comes packed with throwaway prehistoric puns the background of the city has stalls advertising The Beaker People, Flint Eastwood and Jurassic Pork, the caveman football team is referred to as Early Man United while people are told You havent eaten your primordial soup. This is particularly amusing at the climax, which involves attack by a giant-sized duck amid puns such as caught by the old bill [a British colloquialism for the police] and thatll remind him of the pecking order.
The complaint I would make of Early Man is that it is the slightest of Aardmans films to date there is not the knee-slapping belly laughs of their earlier works. As with the two characters who do a prehistoric parody of match commentators, there is the feeling that some of the puns are groan-worthy. The one scene that taps the delirious silliness of which Aardman are capable of at their peak is a scene that involves Hognob the prehistoric boar sneaking in while Lord Nooth is taking a bath and being required to give a massage, amid puns about going the whole hog and being ham-fisted. Hognob actually ends up being the most appealing among the line-up of otherwise forgettable characters I mean, is there anything distinctive about the characters here that you can imagine them being sold as toys as Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep are?
Despite a general amiability of humour, there feels something about Early Man that merely ambles along doing what has been done before rather than creates its own path. The plot follows the footsteps of just about every sports film ever made. Theres the team of rank outsiders entering into the sports competition where they stand little chance of winning against the much more experienced team. Theres the do-or-die situation where everything, including the continued existence of the outsiders home turf, hinges on the outcome of the game. Theres the self-important black-hearted villain who is determined to cheat and bend the rules in order to win. Despite the odds stacked against them, the outsiders predictably end up winning the match.
I also suspect that part of the problem with Early Man might well be that Nick Park chooses to make a film about soccer a game that is not played much in the US, although is followed fanatically in the UK, Europe and South America and as a result the film encountered indifferent interest at the US box-office.