Animation is a forum for endless possibilities, which is why it is frustrating to see the medium rarely used for anything but talking animals and fairy tales. That's part of the reason why the average person couldn't tell you whether DreamWorks, Blue Sky, or Illumination Entertainment made Kung Fu Panda, Ferdinand, and The Secret Life of Pets. This also explains why Aardman Animations has stood out from the rest.
Founded in 1972, the British studio first garnered notice with Academy Award-winning stop motion shorts in the early 1990s. The studio made their feature debut in 2000's Chicken Run, shortly before computer animation went from a Pixar novelty to a fast-spreading, boom-sparking industry game changer. While other studios were moving forward with CGI, Aardman went back and turned their decorated short subjects into feature length stars in 2005's Best Animated Feature Oscar winner Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Aardman made the leap to computer animation on Flushed Away, which was released in 2006, a year chockfull of CG animation and finally with as many box office misses as hits (Flushed was the former).
In the twelve years since, Aardman has alternated between computer animation and their signature stop motion. Though consistently given favorable reviews, their films have drawn smaller and smaller audiences, leading them to be dropped by distributors hoping that quality would lead to commercial gain.
Early Man, Aardman's seventh theatrical feature, was also the studio's least attended release to date, grossing just $8 million and change in a brief winter North America run. In fact, only three animated films have ever grossed less domestically while occupying 2,000 theaters or more: Doogal (2006), The Wild Life (2016), and Teacher's Pet (2004).
It's easy to understand why this prehistoric Aardman comedy joined the ranks of that class marked more by obscurity than infamy. This is a very British movie about soccer, a fact that marketing tried to hide by pitching this as simply a caveman comedy in the vein of DreamWorks' The Croods. It's less witty than other Aardman works, which include Arthur Christmas and the film titled here The Pirates! Band of MisfitS, and it's also considerably less accessible.
After a grainy prologue depicts the discovery of the game, we are introduced to our Stone Age protagonists, which include a young man named Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and a wild boar named Hognob (voiced by writer-director Nick Park). Whilst doing what they do, these old-fashioned hunter-gatherers run into an advanced civilization from the Bronze Age. The Stone Age lot gets driven out to the volcanic Badlands, but Dug winds up in the city of the Bronze Age, where Lord Nooth (unrecognizably voiced by Tom Hiddleton), is about to have him sentenced to death.
Instead, Dug challenges the champion Real Bronze team to a game of soccer. The Stone Age group needs considerable training to even qualify as underdogs. But they do that and get their shot to take on the champions.
It is surprising to see just how thinly plotted Early Man is. The studio that has packed their films with clever in-jokes and imaginative narratives basically just uses the painstaking stop motion to give us a sitcom soccer episode that feels stretched out to fit a feature runtime. And there is really nothing but the occasional chuckle to get you through this harmless yet underwhelming trip. The characters don't endear and the plot never unearths any depth or relevance. If you're not fond of European football and the passionate fandom that surrounds it, there is not much to love or even like here.
Even the usually dependable critic reception that Aardman gets was more muted here. While the 80% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes looks impressive (especially with the Certified Fresh designation that even makes the back cover), the 6 average rating simply underscores that for many critics, this was on the border between Fresh and Rotten and they simply chose the former.