Some say there’s nothing better than football on a Saturday. And when you’re able to watch it from the warmth and comfort of your local cinema, I’m inclined to agree. It certainly beats a wet and windy afternoon sat shivering in the stands of The Racecourse in Wrexham. As a supporter of the current National League table-toppers (up the Reds!), I’m used to cheering on the underdog. So the situation in the film Early Man is one I’m very familiar with. In the latest offering from director Nick Park and his Aardmann crew, we find the plucky cavemen of the Stone Age taking on the might of the Bronze Age. It is Manchester City versus Ashton Town – the magic of the FA Cup on the big screen. Here, the non-league minnows are represented by the lovable Doug (Eddie Redmayne) and his motley crew of rabbit hunters. Having lived peacefully in their idyllic forest, they are suddenly forced to flee to the barren edges of the Badlands thanks to the heavyweight machinery of Lord Nooth (voiced by an unrecognisable Tom Hiddleston). He has come to mine their land for precious metal, and nothing is going to stand in his way. In the face of such a threat, Doug has no choice but to challenge the rich governor to a winner-takes-all encounter. And in typical Aardmann style, the battle in question is unashamedly British. No blood-and-gore violence here. This fight will be settled through ‘The Beautiful Game’.
As I’ve come to expect from the films of Nick Park, I had a smile across my face from beginning to end. The opening scene was typical of the nuanced British humour that is laced throughout the film. Understated, quirky, clever – I have no other descriptions, other than a comparison with the genius of Monty Python. Once or twice, there were elements that completely matched the best of their absurdity, and had me close to tears (of laughter, I hasten to add) as a result. Children will love the slapstick nature and musical sequences. Adults will titter at the more mature references that pepper the script. But no matter what the age bracket, one cannot fail to appreciate the beautiful craftsmanship that has gone into the set. The establishing shot of the forest is one such moment. The colours are bold and bright; the shrubbery is expertly detailed. It completely overwhelms you. Welcome to the magic and realism of Aardmann’s work. The witty and observant characterisations only add to this production’s quality. The voiceovers were all well-chosen and seemed a natural fit for the characters onscreen. I didn’t find myself playing ‘Guess the Celebrity’ as I do with some animations. Instead, I was immersed in the story enough so as not to get too distracted by the recognisable dialects (though who can fail to invest a bit too much attention in the nasally tones of Richard Ayoade).
If I had to describe this film, it would be as ‘an ode to English football’. On one level, it could rightly be seen as a commentary on the state of the modern game. There are the overpaid professional stars, the extortionate entrance fees, and the huge stadium. There is even a very comical take on VAR, which I thought was a stroke of genius (whether intended or not). On the other hand, it is a tribute to that most working-class of sports. The have-a-go attitude of Doug and his Stone Age companions, along with their lack of resources and makeshift training facilities, is a representation of those in the lower reaches of the English football pyramid. Here is where the raw love, passion and commitment for the game are truly seen, far from the bright lights and big money of the Premier League. No wonder we cheer them on here.
For the football fan, Early Man is a reminder of football’s soul. I can’t help but feel that Park and his team have a real, rose-tinted affection for the game. As a fan myself, I found the two commentators in particular to be really good value, Rob Brydon channelling his inner John Motson and Jock Brown to great effect. I can see how these little touches might get lost on those who have no interest in football though. As a result, it might be fair to say that Early Man is a little more niche than previous productions. Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run had much more universally recognisable British humour in their content. Nevertheless, for me, Early Man continues a tradition of great Aardmann films. They might not have the big bucks of Disney and Pixar but, like their Stone Age counterparts, Aardmann are still able to give their big-spending rivals a well-fought match.