Film 2019: Early Man

The second film in this end-of-year interlude is another recent film that I intended to watch in the cinema – it’s Aardman, it’s Nick Parks: what more do you want? – as soon as I saw the trailer, but which, when the film got into the cinema, I unaccountably never made the time. Maybe I was prescient?

Early Man starts well, with a series of captions as we zoom in on a very familiar plant. ‘Earth’, it starts out. Then it informs us that this is ‘The Neo-Pleistecene Age’, a gag that flops by sounding too scientifically accurate. The next one bust a gut though: ‘Near Manchester’. Finally, ‘Lunchtime’. I’m giggling happily.

Then an asteroid bursts through the prevailing cloud cover (oh yes, it’s Manchester alright), striking the earth and gouging out a massive valley, whilst blowing cavemen and insects and dinosaurs all over in beautifully realised slow-motion (there’s a brilliant sight-gag as a cockroach, watching the swelling ball of light from afar, whips out a pair of sunglasses).

When the impact is over, the tribe enter the valley cautiously. They find the heart of the asteroid, a more or less sphere made up out of hexagonal panels. It’s still too hot to hold in their hands so they kick it about. Lo and behold! Football is invented. Jump forward a few ages and, thump, the film falls flat.

Not immediately. We meet Dug, our hero, a young hunter in the tribe that occupies the valley, the great crater now an idyllic woodland surrounded by blasted landscapes and volcanoes known as the badlands (that bit must be Liverpool). The tribe, made up of the usual Aardman gang of eccentrics, are hunters, rabbit hunters, actually a rabbit hunters, the same one every day with an annoyingly shrill titter. Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) is ambitious for the tribe, wanting to hunt mammoths, you know, something big enough to feed everyone, but the Chief (Timothy Spall) is stuck in his ways. I mean, dammit, he’s old he’s nearly 32.

Suddenly, the valley is invaded by war-mammoths, kitted out in bronze armour, headed by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddlestone with a somewhat unconvincing Italian accent that I’m not sure isn’t supposed to be Spanish), sweeping the Stone Age Primitives out of the valley so it can be mined for its ore, and especially its Bronze.

So far, still funny, but not as hilarious as at the start. Dug wants to fight back, is accidentally knocked out and carried back to the Bronze city, which is cearly far more civilised, meets a sarcastic girl pan-maker called Goona (who you can instantly tell is going to be important to the story: she’s voiced by Maisie Williams), and ends up being dragged into the arena in gladiator gear. The Sacred Games are about to begin. The sacred Game is… Football! And the film drops dead in its tracks.

No, it doesn’t quite do that. The set-up is that Dug, on behalf of his tribe, challenges the Champions, Real Bronzio, for the return of the valley. If the Primitives lose they labour in the mines. But the tribe have no idea how to play football and only start to shape up as a team when they end up being coached by, yes, yu guessed it, Goona, a keen and talented footballer who can never tread the Sacred Turf because, again you guessed it, she’s a girl.

What follows is as inevitable as a Boris Johnson lie. Though the animation is continually excellent, and there is a high degree of football expertise in the shaping of the story, including some quite effective allusions that are left to the audience to connect, the film is basically one long boy’s soccer serial from a Sixties comic, no better in that sense than anything I’ve recently re-read in The Hornet.

I’m afraid that from the moment football began to dominate the story, the film fell flat for me. Little of the comedy worked. There was a slight Flintstones veneer to some of the gags but the best of these, a Message-Bird that’s the equivalent of a voicemail, ruined itself by its horrible cliches of having the Queen, from whom its come, go through the sad and tired ‘how does this thing work?’ routine at its start.

It was the same with Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals, although the film lacks the underlying sense that the writers just don’t like football. The game itself is actually extraordinarily hard to spoof without immediately disconnecting from all realistic aspects of it.

The idea of kitting out the Primitives in red shirts is an obvious nod to 1966 and the World Cup, made explicit by their being handed a trophy afterwards that resembles the original Jules Rimet trophy. There’s also a gag from the commentators, calling them ‘Early Man United’ which is less successful, especially on a day following the announcement of the death of the fifth of that team, Martin Peters, giving an unanticipated and unwanted poignancy to the moment.

There’s another factor that, for me at least, worked against the credibility of the film. Aardman is at its core backwards-looking. Whether you choose to call its nostalgia or retrogressive, it can’t be denied that the companies art derives from the recreation of an earlier time, and it’s presentation as some kind of idyllic age. In Wallace and Gromit it’s the Fifties, depicted as a cozy, dressing-gown and slippers are, of plain, downhome ordinariness that is, instinctively better than now. Chicken Run built itself upon a glorious spoof of WW2 Prison Camp movies, but outside the camp, the Tweedies and the world were still irrevocably Fifties.

The same ethos is at work here. The Stone Age is standing up to the Bronze Age and demanding to be left alone, to be allowed to live forever: it’s a prehistoric Fifties, charming, slightly daft, but comfortable as a warm blanket. and for me the effect doesn’t work. Aardman is flying in the face of history. Bronze replaced stone, wiped it out completely. The film takes the wrong side. In the film, someone like Lord Nooth is a very contemporary bad guy, out for power and riches, but his society is so clearly superior to that of Dug’s tribe (despite the writers’ attempt to denigrate Bronze by having Nooth rant about loving its coldness and slipperiness). Only a tiny handful of the audience will not instinctively look at the difference between the two periods and not go immediately for the Bronze, an effect not helped by having the Primitives be, well, so eccentric.

In the end, not much surprised me, which was where the film fell down. If you know not only how it will end but how it will get there in advance, the film is otiose. A shame, really. Hopefully, Aardman and Park will find a more sympathetic subject for their style of humour next time, and I can happily to to see it in the cunema.

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