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Early Man (2018)

When a meteorite crashes into the Earth somewhere near Manchester in pre-history who would have thought that the resulting ball-like crystal would be used as the genesis for what we now know today as football?

The Stone Age tribe of Dug and company live a simple life and have all but forgotten football. As the Bronze Age encroaches on their valley and evicts them they will have to dig deep, train hard, work and as a team and learn the rules to a game long forgotten.

Dug is your regular Stone Age dreamer and his best friend is Hognob - the pair are inseparable. Dug thinks and dreams big which is at times at odds with his tribe. The tribe like the easy life in their beautiful valley. They sleep, hunt rabbits, gather large round fruit and party. This all changes when strange armoured creatures arrive in their valley one night and chase them from their home.

During the ensuing commotion, Dug finds himself in the Bronze Age settlement of Lord Nooth and discovers what he intends to do with the valley that Dug cherishes. Whilst in the settlement Dug is introduced to football and before you know it he is challenging Real Bronzio, champions of the Bronze Age, to a match for the valley. He'll have to convince his tribe, explain the rules and somehow learn how to play if they want to return home. It most certainly is the clash of ages.

When the name Aardman is attached to a project (just as with Pixar) it sets an expectation which for me is very high. Nick Park is on directing duties for Early Man working from a screenplay by Mark Burton and James Higginson whose credits include the Shaun the Sheep Movie. Nick and Aardman have been responsible for some of the most loved stop-motion films and characters since the late 1980s.

On the technical front, Aardman seamlessly blend traditional stop-motion with CGI. There is a charming organic feel to the cast of characters - a slight hint of roughness around the edges which suggests that they are real. I imagine that adding that roughness through CGI would be challenging. At times it looked like invisible hands were moulding them, leaving small clues that they had been there as I watched the film. The fluidity of the character movement is exceptional and very quickly I was so engrossed I felt I was watching actors on the screen. The acting on display here actually puts some real actors to shame. I can only imagine the amount of work and planning that goes into a production like this. It's all worth it.

There is so much to see and take in with this, as with all Aardman films. The creatures in Early Man nod to Ray Harryhausen in both look and how they move. In similar ways to the Flinstones, our stone-age tribe use nature as technology to help with the day to day activities. The backgrounds are full of puns and visual jokes, you know they are there but can't take them all in. From my limited knowledge of football, the film makes some fun and on-the-money observations about football, fans and the industry. I'm sure many of the puns and jokes related to football went over my head! But I still really enjoyed the spectacle on display.

In Early Man we have a wide cast of characters who all take on elements of the superb voice cast. There were two characters who stole the movie for me and they could not be more different from each other. First we have Lord Nooth who is a scene-stealing villain with a delicious "French" accent. He's slimy, selfish and in many ways is an old-fashioned pantomime villain that the whole audience can get behind ... most likely boo-ing. He's one of those characters that whenever he is on screen your attention is just held by him. He looks like no other in the film, is facially very expressive and his motivations are on display for all to see.

Then we have Hognob, a kind of sabre-toothed woolly pig. Hognob is the best friend of Dug and the voice of reason within Early Man. Hognob is clearly thinking what we the audience are thinking and expresses it so well. He is the straight man or foil for the antics of Dug. The Aardman team have a real talent for using the face and body of its characters to silently express a thought. Gromit did it with Wallace and here Hognob steps up to the challenge admirably. There is a scene where Lord Nooth and Hognob are together that was simply superb. It exemplified everything that Aardman do so well from the situation, the script (and the different audiences it appeals to) and quality acting. I have not laughed so much so far this year as I did in that one scene!

Aardman have once again created a true family film. It can be enjoyed by anyone of any age, on your own or in a group. The story picks up on the themes of family, teamwork, self-belief and what can be achieved if you put your mind to it. It is also possible to think of the Stone and Bronze Ages as metaphors for social class or cultures and how we can come together for something great. It is a *very* funny film with comedy ranging from top-class slap-stick to some cracking jokes. There is a wonderful perspective-related joke that was so unexpected I was in tears of laughter in the theatre. At times you think they are stretching something just a little too far but the punchline is delivered at the perfect moment with a final flourish. Hitchcock did this with tension in his thrillers, here Nick Park does the equivalent with comedy.

Nick Park and the Aardman team have raised the bar with Early Man. They have created and populated a vibrant prehistoric world with recognisable personalities. It is a seamless blend of exceptional stop-motion and CGI with nods to the work of Ray Harryhausen. They weave a tale about teamwork and what it can achieve. They demonstrate again a talent for physical, verbal and visual comedy that will appeal to all ages that will reward multiple viewings. Football is a sport I don't care for but Nick Park and his team crafted a tale so engaging, where the sport was used as a means to tell the story and not the focus, that its 90 minutes just flew by. Finally, they have created yet another character in Hognob who like Gromit and Shaun before, steals the show saying so much without saying anything.

FORMATSCinema :Out Now (UK)
 Feb 16 (US)
FROM Studio Canal/ Lionsgate
1hr 29m [Movie]

IN A NUTSHELL: Aardman have done it again and are on top of their game. It's a solid gold production, not bronze. Early man rocks!