On the origins of soccer, deceptive ducks, and history according to Aardman
Early Man Lionsgate
Director: Nick Park
Screenplay: Mark Burton, James Higginson and Nick Park
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Kayvan Novak, Richard Ayoade, Miriam Margolyes, Rob Brydon and Selina Griffiths
Rated PG / 1 hour, 29 minutes / 1.85:1
(out of four)
Who needs a true story when you can have one that's so much sillier? I personally have no idea what the exact origins of soccer really were, but I'm more than happy to accept Early Man's version instead: That the ball was in fact a chunk of asteroid - the same asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs - and that it landed amidst a society of cavemen, and that they kicked it around from person to person only because it was piping hot and couldn't be held. And so - thanks to this impromptu, knee-jerk demonstration of Hot Asteroid Potato - it began.
If you're a fan of the beautiful game, this is the happiest of accidents. For the sketch-comedy anthropologists at Aardman Studios, it's a gold mine.
Or, at least, a bronze one.
More than their droll energy and their screwball frenzy, their puns or their pantomime, Aardman's adventure-comedies are known most of all for their original characters, created in-house - in particular, but not limited to, Nick Park's iconic duo of Wallace & Gromit. In recent years, though, the studio has expanded its reach into the history books, bringing real-life (or otherwise well-known) figures and historical periods into its farcical orbit. Its Monty Python-like lampooning of class and authority has extended to the likes of Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin (in The Pirates! Band of Misfits), Santa Claus (Arthur Christmas), and fictional but period-specific Bronze Age rulers in Early Man, Aardman's - and Park's - latest offering.
Like so much of Python's work, Early Man is history as farce, set within a delightfully absurd collision of the stone and bronze ages, pitting a cave-dwelling tribe so primitive it can barely manage to hunt rabbits against a haughty, bedazzled army of virtually unchallenged conquerors. Not on the battlefield, mind you, but on the pitch. When Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) and his traveling invasion/demolition crew stampede through our heroes' valley - yet another casual attempt to extend the dominion of the bronze empire Nooth tries to claim as his own - the displaced cavemen challenge them to a winner-take-all soccer match. The all-stars of Real Bronzio vs. a group of novices that would sooner attack a soccer ball with a spear than kick it in any particular direction. If the cavemen win, they get their valley back; if they lose, they still get to stay there ... but only as laborers working to mine bronze to fill their invaders' coffers.
Park, along with co-writers Mark Burton and James Higginson, sends up both groups with equal gusto (albeit from completely different directions): the arrogant pseudo-sophisticates in the city and the humble, charming, hopelessly naive neanderthals stuck out in the badlands until the ongoing land dispute can get settled. Putting the two eras side by side is a good joke in and of itself, but the filmmakers get a lot of their satisfaction in one-off plays on words and sight gags that don't so much require either period but simply use them as the backdrop, or jumping-off point. When I get around to giving the film a second look, my eyes will be on the background, trying to spot all the puns (featured on signs and storefronts throughout the film's Bronze Age city) I missed the first time around. There's also a staggering visual-perspective joke - involving a duck - that's reminiscent of vintage Zucker Bros.
Park's trademark style of claymation - particularly the character design - is instantly recognizable in Early Man, the teeth, noses and feet as prominent as ever, the eyes big and expressive as always. But his most striking touch is the distant backgrounds - skies and cliffs and emptiness - which in their shades of red seem both primordial and apocalyptic.
Given the emphasis on the progress within and across eras - however accelerated the process in this case - it's only fitting that the film's key figure and catalyst is a member of the younger generation of cavemen, who even before the invasion was more than a little anxious to try new ideas (i.e. hunting woolly mammoths instead of just rabbits), against the reservations of the tribe's white-haired chief, Bobnar (Timothy Spall, obviously). The plucky upstart Dug (Eddie Redmayne) may not quite be ready to joint the Bronze Age, but, y'know, baby steps. He at least knows a chance at progress when he sees it. And isn't afraid of the modern world, either.
With everyone else in his tribe content to accept their new fate and mope about pining for the old days, Dug takes it upon himself to make the dumbest wager imaginable. Then all he has to do is get the rest of his peers up to speed on the rules of soccer, so they can go win back what is rightfully theirs. Lucky for Dug, a local girl in town named Goona (Maisie Williams) is something of an aficionado and - given the strict city regulations against girls playing soccer - she has more than enough time to show the cavemen the ropes. Plus, it's the only way she'll ever be able to fulfill her dream of getting on the field, otherwise permanently relegated to selling goods in the local marketplace.
Early Man is not just a prehistoric sports comedy but belongs to a more specific tradition of sports - or competition itself - as farce, movies whose competitors are ill-equipped for the high-stakes event in which they have found themselves participating. Not just a ragtag group of underdogs but underdogs who have no business being on the field - or on the court, or in the ring, or on the ice - to begin with, and in most cases got there by accident, mistaken identity, misunderstanding, or gambling. Think Horse Feathers, Battling Butler or The Freshman - or even something like Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.
The sheer magnitude of the end result - the consequences that result from a win or loss - are of course part of the joke, but also ... not. A decisive sporting event can be - or rather, feel like - such a momentous thing for a community. (Just ask people in Philadelphia or Cleveland.) With Early Man's depiction of progress as a slapstick series of ambitions and misfortunes, hubris and folly, there's something authentic, in a harebrained sort of way, about using something as simple as a soccer game to decide it. Traditions are invented and forgotten, passed on and torn down, replaced and replenished - but at least we can settle it on the field.