What’s not to like about Nick Park and Aardman Animations’ Early Man? Apparently it depends on whether your country favors the round or pointy kind of football. Whereas UK reviews are all positive, American reviews included comments as nasty as “Who cares if cavemen could play soccer?”
As an American, the problem is pretty obvious. There are many jokes and nuances that fly over the heads of viewers who are unaware of English football culture. Director Nick Park and animators Will Becher and Merlin Crossingham are not strictly football fans, and they tried to make a film that would appeal to non-soccer viewers. But I’m afraid the film remains beyond the capabilities of most Americans. They worship pointy football and don’t appreciate a ball that’s meant to roll on the ground — unless it’s a bowling ball.
Early Man is an underdog sports movie with cavemen. The cavemen, led by Dug (Eddie Redmayne), must win a soccer game or be forced to mine ore for the Bronze money-loving Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). Dug convinces his teammates they can prevail against their Eurostar-like opponents. He realizes that his ancestors had invented the game centuries earlier, and therefore, his tribe must have a natural talent for it. He only discovers at the last minute why those ancestors had given up the game.
Some cute bits
While the beginning of the film is a little slow, due to a bit of “look what we can do with clay!”, the second half is brisk. A Bronze Age jockette, Goona (Maisie Williams), trains the Stone Age team. There are subtle football jokes throughout, as when the white-haired tribal elder laments he is too old to play — he’s 32, truly ancient in modern football culture! In another scene, Lord Nooth tries to influence the match outcome by replacing the referee, and I enjoyed his use of standard referee verbiage in comically waving off crunching fouls.
Director Park feels that football is a prehistoric natural, because football is tribal and almost a religion. For example, Goona, the female footballer, laments that as a female, she isn’t allowed to be on “the sacred pitch”. It becomes a feminist moment when Lord Nooth realizes she has to be allowed to play.
A remarkable piece of art
Even though the creative leadership claims not to be football fans, I have to believe the artists who designed the sets were on the obsessive side of fandom. There are as many soccer balls in the decor as you would expect to see crosses in a cathedral. The dedicated staging is mind-boggling, and the crew’s efforts make the game play look as real as possible. Besides watching football, I was always mindful that I was watching a remarkable piece of art.
Earning a good box office
As of the first 2 weeks of international release, the film has earned around $20M, against an estimated budget of $50M. It seems likely the film will recoup its budget, which would make it one of the biggest box offices for a football film. (Update: As of Mar-2020, the film has earned $54M worldwide.) They could have generated more revenue by selling coordinated products, but unfortunately, it looks like Aardman did not put much effort into merchandising. I could barely find a listing for a plush Hognob, and it was sold out. It appears that Aardman doesn’t really like to sell models of its characters. Instead, Jim Parkyn encourages you to “Make your own Hognob!”, or you can go to the studio for a corporate team-building claymation workshop.
I have never seen so many reviews and interviews for a soccer movie. Read the fun facts:
- The early pitch for the film was “Gladiator meets Dodgeball”
- The film required 273 puppets (18 for Dug) with 3,000 different mouths
- Hobnobs are a popular British chocolate biscuit
- One reason for Dug’s young enthusiastic voice, free of cynicism is that his character is only 15 years old
- Animators would dress up in caveman suits to film themselves in order to model the action of the characters
- It takes 24 frames to make 1 second of film, and an animator can produce 2-3 seconds of film per day. With 35-40 animators, a good production rate was 1 minute per week. It takes about 5 years to make a stop-action animation film, about the same as digital animation.
- The scene with Hognob giving Lord Nooth a massage took 18 months to perfect
- The football field was 30 feet long, and the entrance to the stadium is 10 feet high. Watch the second half of this video to see the intricate sets.
- Casting and voice acting take place before animation so that the animators can make the clay match the voices.
- Nick Park is the kind of director who does dozens of takes, which suited Eddie Redmayne just fine. The many takes also give animators more options.
- Kayvan Novak voices Lord Nooth’s right hand man and the referee. Novak’s goal was for the voice to be the “quintessential Cypriot waiter”. He did not meet any of the cast until the premiere, but please tell people that Kayvan Novak is hilarious.
For a review of an earlier claymation soccer short, check out Shaun the Sheep
8 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 8