After the disappointment of the Oscar-nominated animated shorts, I took myself to Early Man, with the hope that the often-wonderful clay figure animator Nick Park would lift my animation spirits. It turned out to be a vain hope.
The Early Man animation looks good at first. Figures have presence; they’re grounded; you can see the workings in the clay. It feels substantial and Nick Park is great with lips, ears, noses, mouths and eyes. His characters have dimension and substance. They feel anything but virtual. The movie has promise. It’s playful and funny. A title reads “Earth,” then “Neo-Pleistocene.” Two dinosaurish critters fight, in a quick tribute to the revered special effects animator Ray Harryhausen. Human beings carry on; they bite each other’s toes and it feels like a Nick Park world.
There’s a quick rundown of human history – from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age. The anthropology is fanciful, of course and quirky, because this is not a documentary on human development. Park imagines a conflict between the two groups – the blunt and coarse cave men ready to fight the supercilious, hypocritical, but more developed Bronze-agers. The Bronze folks take over the lovely valley home of the Stone Agers, which leads to a prolonged struggle. It also turns out that early on in human development, a soccer ball magically comes into existence – like the monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey. And there is also a cave painting record of humanoids playing soccer – but since Early Man is a British picture, it’s called a football. And that’s where the last spark of creativity in Early Man disappears.
It feels as if some demon takes over the film and casts a cloak of drivel over the production. You suddenly find yourself locked into a high school sports movie. The cutest of the cave people, called Dug and voiced by Eddie Redmayne, bravely goes to the leader of the Bronze people to challenge them to a soccer match, even though the Bronze ones are the only soccer players on the planet and the game is unknown among the Stone folks. The prize is possession of the lovely valley. To prove his cuteness, Dug – spelled D-U-G – has a pet boar, called Hognob, voiced by Nick Park himself.
Like a moth to a flame, the rest of the film leads up to the big game, complete with the familiar struggles among the Stone people and the prissy superiority of the well-heeled high-tech Bronze. It’s a drag of a movie.
On my way into the theater, the ticket-seller asked if I’d ever seen Wallace and Gromit, Nick Park’s deliriously nutty series from 1994. He said most people coming to Early Man had not. Wallace and Gromit are two clay figures, with working class English accents, who go about life in a thoroughly clueless state, although they’re dead serious about whatever it is that they do. In 1989, Park made a short called Creature Comforts. In just five minutes that film presents a series of brief interviews with animals in a zoo, who talk about their lives and their lodgings. It’s droll and hilarious, tremendously imaginative and unexpected. It also won that year’s Oscar for best short animated film – and if you look at the films in that category this year, you might think that animation has fallen a long way.
And maybe so has Nick Park. The lifeless story of Early Man even affects the animation itself. After the lively opening, the film grows tedious and the clay figures start to look trite and overworked. The film settles for cute and predictable and loses its playfulness and any satisfying sense of character. Creature Comforts and Wallace and Gromit are both fun and touching. It’s lovely when Park uses the suggestiveness of Claymation to take the audience inside an imagined inner life of once-wild zoo animals. Early Man feels over planned with the deliberate intention to take us nowhere at all.