Football and film have never been happy strike partners. See the disastrous When Saturday Comes, from 1996, as a case in point. A TV listing once summed it up with a legendary pithiness: ‘Ludicrous drama starring Sean Bean’. It’s a description that could easily be applied to almost any other football movie, minus the Sean Bean part. This is a sub-genre of cinema that demands ludicrousness – improbable victories, novices turned world beaters – even though it defies the cold, hard reality of the game it’s portraying. As any dedicated football fan knows, when victory is most needed, spirit-crushing defeat usually follows.
Rather than see this disconnect as a problem, Nick Park and his Aardman Animations team, have positively embraced the football film in all its ludicrousness. Taking Escape to Victory and, away from the pitch, Asterix as its key inspirations, Park and his team have come up with Early Man, a stop motion animation that enthusiastically tells a David and Goliath story while chucking out more football clichés than a Match of the Day pundit.
A group of idiotic cavemen and women are living an idyllic existence (mainly involving chasing rabbits around the forest) which is shattered when a bunch of Bronze Age continentals turn up on a mission to plunder the land for precious minerals. The tribe are sent packing and are only given a chance to return to their home after striking a football-based deal with Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), the money-grabbing leader of the colonisers.
The wager is a simple one – the cave dwellers must beat star football team, Real Bronzio, or face permanent exile in the ‘badlands’. Dug, a perennially optimistic young lad voiced by Eddie Redmayne, does his best to whip his hapless bunch of plasticine pals into a team of model pros. Yet, it’s not until Maisie Williams’ Goona, a talented player who’s not usually allowed to play in the stadium on account of her gender, defects to the Stone Age team, that they start to stand even a smidgeon a chance. When game day comes, will Dug and his plucky buddies win the day? What do you reckon?
Aardman gets a lot of love from British film critics and audiences, simply due to the nature of what they do. It’s easy to see why, of course. In a medium dominated by CGI-driven Pixar movies, there’s something inherently wonderful about the studio’s dedication to both stop motion and homespun British comedy. I’m very much on board with Early Man as far the former is concerned. The film really is a joy to look at, and the fact that finger marks are often visible on the models gives the whole enterprise a textured, comforting aesthetic. The voice work is excellent too, with Timothy Spall’s kindly Chief Bobnar and Johnny Vegas as an especially dumb caveman called Asbo, being the standouts.
However, as far as the comedy goes, I’m sorry to say this Aardman doesn’t quite reach the heights of previous efforts, such as Wallace Gromit horror film spoof, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. There are some nicely subtle football-related gags, such as a reference to Barry Davies’ famous bit of ‘very interesting’ commentary and I wonder if Dug’s pet warthog Hognob’s late appearance as a goalie is a nod to Viz’s Billy the Fish. Otherwise, the plot plays out without any particularly interesting twists on its sporting narrative and, once the big match and a couple of commentators (modelled on John Motson and Alan Hansen) arrive, the script degenerates into a succession of decidedly dated jokes and average football puns.
It’s a shame too that, aside from in the scene where he gets a massage from Hognob, Lord Nooth isn’t an amazingly funny or memorable villain, and I was utterly baffled by the appearance of a giant duck at a number of key moments, that seemed completely out of keeping with the rest of the film.
Early Man is an amiable and often amusing watch, and I’m sure young audiences in particular will find much to enjoy, but it never quite becomes the rip-roaring comedy it should do. To conclude, I’ll take inspiration from the film and put it in footballing terms: Early Man certainly won’t leave you as sick as a parrot, but you won’t exactly be over the moon either.