If I had more than a passing familiarity (or even interest) in the Bronze Age, hunting or Manchester football, I bet I would have gotten a lot more out of Nick Park’s new feature, Early Man. I always have this mental block when it comes to foreign films — even English-language stuff — that are so immersed in the idiosyncrasies of their places of origin that I start to feel like an outsider who can never hope to connect with the director’s intent.
But there have always been exceptions to this phenomenon. Most jidaigeki films tend to take on personal themes that compensate for what might otherwise be impenetrable narratives, while the provincial stories of Ozu or Renoir are always so pure of heart that the dated and socially out-of-reach references can fly over my head all day long and I won’t really care. It’s the characters and commentaries that matter.
But even all that aside — even if I didn’t get every specific nod to some British pop cultural figure or football team, or I didn’t quite see exactly why certain things happened in the order they did — Park and Aardman Animations have delivered such a sweet, exciting and funny new film that the stuff you miss isn’t all that important. While it’s not my favorite of his career — it probably falls somewhere below Chicken Run and Creature Comforts — it still serves as a reminder that Park (and Aardman) is always out there creating worlds just as distinctive in their tone and overall aesthetic as anything Disney or Pixar were producing in their ’50s or ’90s heydays.
The filmmakers are trying something new here. Unless I’m misremembering, this is certainly the most extensive use of CGI to have been featured in an Aardman joint up until now. And it’s in service to the story, pitting the slobs vs. snobs factions against each other as the cavemen — led by Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his sidekick Hognob (director Park) — square off against the very Ivan Drago-like members of the Bronze Age soccer team. The stadiums where the matches take place are pure spectacle, filled with thousands of fans, and the games are beefed up by some strong but playful digital effects.
I grew up on films loaded with idioms and references I never had a chance of fully comprehending at the time. Only later did I tend to put context clues together and appreciate more fully just what a huge gift the creators of those movies were giving me. Early Man is so full of this stuff that it makes me wish I had kids. That’s probably the highest compliment I can pay any film aimed at children.
When there are directors out there who want nothing more than to make smart, ridiculous movies using the most excruciating methods of filmmaking available — that’s what gives me hope and makes me want to keep waking up every morning. I’m grateful that I’m alive at the same time as Nick Park and that I can get to see his work progressing in real time. Things are rough all over. This is just what I needed. Rated PG for rude humor and some action. Now playing at AMC River Hills Classic 10, Carolina Cinemark, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.