A master purveyor of one of the most time-consuming of art forms, Nick Park has, prior to Early Man, directed less than five hours of film (two features and five shorts) over a career that has spanned three decades. In fact, it took him six years just to finish his first stop-motion short. But if the laboriousness of Park's chosen métier has necessarily limited his potential output, it has also tended to make each new release feel like a genuine event: a lovingly hand-crafted gift to be treasured rather than simply consumed.
What a shame, then, that Park's latest feature, his first since The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, feels so utterly disposable. All the hallmarks of the animator's inimitable style are here: the cute-ugly character designs, fastidious attention to detail, and ability to coax subtle yet highly expressive performances out of lumps of plasticine. But here they're put in service of a flat, formulaic narrative that displays only flashes of Park's typical offbeat inventiveness.
Set in a massive crater carved by a long-ago meteor blast, starry-eyed Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) lives in idyllic splendor with the rest of his goofy but lovable caveman tribe. Park establishes their pleasantly crude way of life in the film's opening stretch via a sprightly rabbit-hunting sequence and some nifty Flintstones-style sight gags, such as a scarab that serves as an electric razor. But Dug isn't quite satisfied, as he wants to hunt mammoth. And just as he decides to make his dream a reality by leaving the crater, the tribe's sanctuary is invaded by bronze-armored invaders led by the greedy Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, putting on an outlandish French accent), who boots out the cavemen to turn their home into a massive copper mine.
Nick Park's talents often serve only to highlight the fundamental lack of inspiration at Early Man's core.
This clash between prehistoric pastoralism and technological progress is laden with potential for biting comedy, but Park flattens the conflict into a series of slobs-versus-snobs clichés. No sooner have these Paleolithic putzes encountered an entirely new culture in the high-walled city-state where Nooth lives in bronze-gilded splendor than the film awkwardly shifts gears, indulging a rote sports-movie storyline that sees Dug and his hapless pals pitted against Nooth's hand-selected soccer pros in a match that will determine control of Dug's precious crater. And thus, as Dug attempts to whip his clan into shape for the big game, Early Man turns into a genial but bland series of sports-themed slapstick, inspiring speeches about teamwork, and numerous training montages set to obnoxiously perky pop-punk tunes.
Though animated with the goofball expressiveness typical of Park's work, and voiced by a charming cast of British character actors, most of the characters here are strictly stock kiddie-flick types: Redmayne's big-dreaming hero, Timothy Spall's caring but over-protective chief, Mark Williams's dumb oaf, and so forth. Some of the tribespeople are little more than a single running joke and a funny voice. Hognob (Park), a spunky wild boar who speaks only in grunts and squeals, evokes something of the idiosyncratic deadpan of what is perhaps Park's greatest creation, Grommit, but for the most part these are the sorts of broadly drawn caricatures one might find in any children's film. Additionally, Park's jokes are delivered with unusually slack comic timing, a far cry from the precision-engineering of shorts like The Wrong Trousers.
Early Man perks to life when it indulges its weirder impulses, like a monstrous, man-eating mallard—introduced via an ingenious forced-perspective sight gag—or a “primordial soup” that resembles a bowl of green Gak spotted with eyeballs. And even when the film is at its most tepid—namely during its climactic football game—it's still a treat to watch real light hit actual modeling clay, without the cleansing interference of CGI to erase fingerprints and smooth out character movements. There's something charmingly modest about the way Park allows us to see the imperfections of his stop-motion animation, to remind us from time to time that what we're seeing is essentially just lumps of clay placed in front of miniature handmade sets. But while Park's craft remains impressive, here his talents often serve only to highlight the fundamental lack of inspiration at the film's core.