Early Man Cert: PG 1hr 29mins
Watching the new Nick Park film, Early Man, I found myself wondering whether the 59-year-old, four-times Oscar-winning Aardman frontman – and undeniably one of the giants of British animation – was just a bit out of practice when it comes to directing films himself.
Yes, it’s barely three years since Aardman delivered the truly wonderful Shaun The Sheep Movie, but Park was only executive producer on that.
As for directing and being at the absolute creative heart of a film himself… well, it’s 13 years since the Wallace and Gromit feature-length spin-off Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, and almost two decades since he brought us Chicken Run. That’s really not an awful lot of active film-making.
Early Man’s best voice performance comes from the always boyish-sounding Eddie Redmayne, who plays Dug, the youngest, brightest and most forward-looking of a valley-dwelling tribe
Which might explain why Early Man doesn’t quite hit the heights we might have been hoping for. Yes, many of Park’s hallmark tropes are there – gurning stop-motion characters, dreadful teeth and lots of cheesy jokes – and there are some very funny lines, but somehow there doesn’t seem to be enough of any of it.
At 89 minutes, Early Man is five minutes longer than Shaun The Sheep, but you’re repeatedly left with the impression that it contains only half the material.
Time and again it reminded me of those old Wallace and Gromit Christmas specials, which, similarly, always seemed to be more about the anticipation than the actual enjoyment. But maybe that’s just me – I was never the greatest W&G fan.
Goona, a nice and feisty girl (well voiced by Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones) showing us all that girls can play football too
There’s no doubt that the basic idea, that Stone Age man invented the game of football, is a good one, but it’s an idea that is developed and explored in a limited and modest way, its shortcomings to some degree masked by a fine voice cast, a Gromit-style comedy pig and silly jokes involving bowls of ‘primordial soup’ and Stone Age underpants.
The best voice performance comes from the always boyish-sounding Eddie Redmayne, who plays Dug, the youngest, brightest and most forward-looking of a valley-dwelling tribe, a young man who believes the time has come for the tribe to graduate to hunting mammoths rather than rabbits.
But it’s that sort of ambition that leads him first into danger and then into deep trouble, as he is captured by his Bronze Age betters, depicted here as decadent, grape-peeling, quasi-Romans led by the scheming and greedy Lord Nooth, enthusiastically voiced by an almost unrecognisable Tom Hiddleston.
Timothy Spall brings a touch of pathos to the role of Chief Bobnar, a man who knows his time has passed. He is, after all, an old man. ‘I’m nearly 32!’ he moans
When Dug is thrown into the city’s giant arena, we fear the worst. However, it’s not gladiatorial combat he faces but a game of football.
But when the fearsome locals discover that he’s not the star goalkeeper they had mistaken him for, he only survives by striking a somewhat one-sided deal – if his tribe can beat the local champions, Real Bronzia, not only do they get to live but his tribe get to keep their valley too…
And that’s really about it, apart from a nice but feisty girl (well voiced by Maisie Williams) almost inevitably turning up to show that girls can play football too.
The scheming and greedy Lord Nooth, enthusiastically voiced by an almost unrecognisable Tom Hiddleston, with the parrot like message bird (Rob Brydon)
A supporting voice cast that includes Mark Williams, Richard Ayoade and Johnny Vegas do their best to enliven the endless practice sessions that ensue, while Timothy Spall brings a touch of pathos to the role of Chief Bobnar, a man who knows his time has passed. He is, after all, an old man. ‘I’m nearly 32!’ he moans.
But it’s symptomatic of a film that always feels short of material that at one point a giant duck waddles randomly, Monty Python-style, into the faltering proceedings. To the frightened tribe it’s a giant, man-eating mallard, but it smacks of desperation to me.
IT’S A FACT
In A Close Shave, Wallace makes references to Wensleydale cheese. This sparked an interest in the cheese and saved one of its few makers from financial ruin.
Rob Brydon is fun as the parrot-like message-bird who can only repeat messages verbatim, but, for a short film, the climactic football match is repetitious and goes on so long there seems a distinct danger of the Iron Age arriving before the final whistle is blown.
I did, however, like the ‘action replays’ staged by Punch and Judy puppets on sticks, which, although reasonably faithful to the play on the pitch, has to involve a string of sausages somewhere along the way.
That’s a lovely comedy touch, which I hope the Lancashire-born Park was personally responsible for.
Early Man needs more moments like that, but it doesn’t quite have them. Yes, a younger audience will naturally be more forgiving, but the great thing about Shaun The Sheep was that it worked for children and adults in a way that this does not.
If you’re going to poke fun at the already much-lampooned game of football, you need to be funnier, cleverer and more inventive than this. Sorry, Nick.
12 Strong (15)
Last Flag Flying (15)
Maze Runner: The Death Cure (12A)
You wouldn’t expect a war movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, a film-maker known for his love of big explosions and American swagger, to have much in common with a film made by art-house favourite Richard Linklater.
And yet Bruckheimer’s 12 Strong and Linklater’s Last Flag Flying do share a certain something, although to spell it out might spoil a late twist in the latter.
There’s an obstacle in the way of enjoying the former, too, which tells the story of America’s first military incursion into Afghanistan in 2001 by a unit of Special Forces, just weeks after September 11.
Chris Hemsworth in 12 Strong. For the first time in decades, American soldiers rode into battle on horses (borrowed from their Afghan warlord allies)
This was the moment the US struck back, and it’s told here with Bruckheimer dialling up the triumphalism to at least 11 – ignoring the fact that, 17 years later, the outcome of that invasion is at best inconclusive.
All of which should make 12 Strong a pile of revisionist nonsense. Yet it isn’t. It has a fine cast led by Chris Hemsworth, brilliantly staged fighting scenes, and shows that, for the first time in decades, American soldiers rode into battle on horses (borrowed from their Afghan warlord allies).
Linklater’s Last Flag Flying sees three Vietnam veterans reuniting after more than 30 years, when one of them loses a son in the second Gulf War.
‘Doc’ (Steve Carell) wants the hard-drinking Sal (Bryan Cranston) and God-fearing Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) to help bring home his son’s body.
What ensues is essentially a road trip, with much joshing and reflection, the men all haunted by a distinctly unheroic past.
Matt Damon and Hong Chau in Downsizing, a social satire in which Matt Damon plays a man who is shrunk to just five inches tall
Disappointment of the week has to be Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, a social satire in which Matt Damon plays a man who is shrunk to just five inches tall.
In an alternate fantasy near-future, ‘getting small’ is all the rage – pensions go further, carbon footprints are dramatically reduced… But his new lifestyle brings with it new problems too. There are some funny lines here, but the story rambles inordinately.
I’ve never warmed to the Maze Runner films, but if you’re a fan, you’re going to like Maze Runner: The Death Cure, which brings the trilogy to a close in some style as Tom & co attempt to reunite the old gang to find a cure for the deadly ‘flare virus’.
It’s a class above anything that’s gone before.