Early Man comes up short of its goal as an animated film for the ages
As a British animation company, Aardman Animations naturally makes films that skew toward the mindset and aesthetics of that side of the pond. Some are subtle, some are overt, but the ones that have been more successful have attempted to make the experience universal.
You would think that their latest offering, Early Man, wouldn't be that provincial, as it promised to tell a story about how people of the Stone Age ran into trouble when the Bronze Age started. Director Nick Park and his team could have mined the anachronistic clash for all sorts of funny moments and interactions, with perhaps a few nods toward more modern jokes.
Instead, the film is almost entirely about … football (aka soccer). There are plenty of gags about issues that early man might face (giant carnivorous ducks, anyone?). However, the bulk of the narrative involves Dug (Eddie Redmayne) attempting to whip his ragtag group of Stone Age people into proper football shape to take on the highly skilled Bronze Age team put together by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston).
It's clear in the way the film focuses on certain aspects of the game — prima donna players, erudite announcers, etc. — that it is aiming at a very specific, European audience. Soccer may be the most popular sport on the planet, but only certain people will be able to relate to the finer points of the movie.
Unfortunately, this single-mindedness has a dulling effect on Aardman's normally reliable general humor. It's still possible to enjoy the dimwitted characters with their signature gap-toothed overbites, and the non-sequiturs that randomly pop up are a delight. But since they're in service of a plot that's less interesting than usual, it takes away from the overall product.
The level of skill it takes to make Aardman's stop-motion animated films remains highly impressive, but the story of Early Man will likely prevent that artistry from reaching as broad an audience as possible.