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For Nick Park, it always begins with a drawing. On “Chicken Run” (2000), it was a chicken digging its way out of a coop with a shovel, which became a riff on “The Great Escape,” and on his latest, “Early Man,” it was cavemen kicking what would eventually become a soccer ball.
Thus began Aardman’s first prehistoric underdog sports movie in stop-motion, and Park’s first feature since the Oscar-winning “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005). Only this time, he decided to direct solo without partner Peter Lord or animator Steve Box.
Cavemen are well covered now with ‘The Croods’ [which began at Aardman before DreamWorks took it over] and ‘The Flintstones,’ but I was looking for a quirky Aardman angle, and soccer became the hook,” said Park, who pitched “Early Man” as “Gladiator” meets “Dodgeball.”
“This could have legs: a group of idiotic, lovable cavemen who only know how to fight and use weapons, but the only way they can win back their Valley was to win a soccer match,” Park added. “I’d never seen a prehistoric underdog sports movie before and in the UK football, or soccer, is a religion, very tribal. And it seemed a good area to explore.”
In “Early Man,” a pompous tyrant, Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), forces the tribe to flee to the Badlands when he discovers bronze in their Valley. But Dug (Eddie Redmayne) challenges the Bronze Age foes to a soccer match to win back their Valley. “We needed football to have moved on and adopted by the Bronze Age people, who have corrupted the game through bronze and money, which is very much a comment on the modern game,” said Park.
And in Dug and his lovable hog, Hognob (voiced by Park), Park found the equivalent of Aardman’s iconic Wallace & Gromit. Not surprisingly, Hognob steals the movie when he’s forced to give Nooth a massage. In fact, that was one of the most difficult scenes, which took 18 months to perfect. “There’s a naive charm to them like Wallace & Gromit,” said Will Becher, the animation director.
Making Soccer Puppets
For the puppets to run and appropriate other soccer skills, Park designed them to be simple, chunky, and long-legged. “Early Man” required 273 puppets (including 18 for hero Dug), with 3,000 hand-crafted interchangeable mouths. “It was hard to pull off an exciting, cinematic game,” Park said. “‘Gladiator’ helped with action and crowd scenes. But the challenge was how to do soccer with stop-frame. We tested how they ran with the ball and added motion blur or sped up the animation to keep the dynamics.”
Park looked at everything from “The Mighty Ducks” and “The Miracle” to “Slap Shot” and “Lagaan,” an Indian fave about a villager challenging the British Raj to a cricket match. But Park was at a loss for finding the underdog angle since cavemen invented soccer. So he came up with the idea of a prehistoric prologue (inspired by Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion work on “One Million Years B.C.”), in which the game was invented by their ancestors, but it’s been kept under wraps ever since because of a deep, dark secret.
Handmade animation is a dying art form, but the stop-motion artisans at Aardman Animations are still carrying its tiny, intricately crafted flag. Early Man,
But setting it almost entirely outdoors in the Valley, the Badlands, the Bronze Village, and the soccer stadium provided the greatest epic scope in Aardman history. “We did the stadium digitally apart from Lord Nooth’s throne and the corner gates, which were done practically,” said Merlin Crossingham, co-animation director. “We couldn’t do all the puppets so we did the crowd digitally except for those hero shots in the foreground.”
Aside from “Wallace & Gromit,” the other Aardman features embrace how to unify a community. “And football is the perfect symbol of that with teamwork and how the tribe pulls themselves together, even though the coach [Timothy Spall] doesn’t really believe they’re any good,” said Park. “He loves them but he keeps them in a low ambition state because it’s safe. It’s something that all the underdog sports movies have in common.”
the first movie by Aardman standard-bearer Nick Park in a decade, whisks us back to the Stone Age, when tools were primitive and the wheel was just a gleam in some visionary caveperson’s eye. But while the film is deliberately crude in some respects—Park once described his aesthetic as making sure that, no matter how carefully sculpted his clay figures were, he always left the thumbprints showing—it’s fastidiously detailed in others, dancing between broad humor and subtle, almost subliminal gags as it plays out the conflict between Neanderthals and their evolutionary successors.
Although an opening title winkingly places Early Man’s volcanic landscape somewhere near Manchester, England, the movie isn’t as obsessively steeped in Britishisms as Park’s classic Wallace and Gromit shorts. But the epochal battle between homos neanderthalensis and sapiens takes the most English form imaginable: a football match. (Calling it soccer in this context just feels wrong.) The prize is control over the valley where Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his fellow hominids make their home, gamely hunting rabbits and plotting ways to take down a wooly mammoth without suspecting that not far away, humankind has already entered the Bronze Age.
Dug’s tribe is abruptly informed of their imminent obsolescence by the arrival of Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), a supercilious dandy with a French accent as thick as hollandaise. The Bronze Agers take their football seriously, and their team is nigh-unstoppable, but the Neanderthals are the ones who invented the game, even if they’ve forgotten how to play it.
Fortunately, the Bronze Agers are misogynists as well as snobs; as far as they’re concerned, the playing field for “the beautiful game” is no place for a woman. So Goona (Maisie Williams), a fervent soccer fan, makes the counter-Darwinian choice to defect, teaching Dug and his tribe the finer points of the sport and instilling in them a team spirit that Real Bronzio’s pampered showboaters can’t possibly muster.
Park and his writers,
Mark Burton and James Higginson, cobble together enough of a story to sustain Early Man at feature length, but it’s clear that character-building is not where their true interests lie. The movie isn’t a collection of sketches, the way the Monty Python and Mel Brooks movies to which it duly pays homage were. It’s more like an old shaggy-dog story embellished with glorious new flourishes, so vivid and delightful that paying too much attention to the core characters would only distract you from them. I don’t recall what happens when Dug first arrives in the Bronze citadel, but I can tell you it transpires in a market with stalls labeled “Pelts for Celts” and “Jurassic Pork.”