Aardman Animations has been quietly carving out a niche for itself in family entertainment since the turn of the century, crafting delightfully candid stop-motion tales of British outsiders marching to the beat of their own drum. Its worlds have toilet paper as taut as bungee cords and animals that are uniformly smarter than all humans.
But the studio’s plain-spoken absurdities find their limits in their Mesolithic misstep “Early Man,” a total nonstarter on both a comedic and narrative level from “Wallace and Gromit” creator Nick Park.
The tall tale finds its protagonist in Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), a young caveman tired of kicking around in the Stone Age and hunting and eating the same old rascally rabbits in the small woodland oasis that he and his tribe call home. Upon the comically abrupt invasion of some clanging metallic conquerors, Dug becomes totally enamored — and later terrified — by the technological dominance of these inhabitants of the so-called Bronze Age.
To win back his tribe’s homeland, Dug challenges this arrogantly advanced society to a game of their beloved sport of “football” (in the English sense of the word), kicking off a flurry of boppy training montages to prepare for the climactic showdown.
Aardman remains typically playful in its realization of its stories’ worlds, even when stepping outside of the English countryside and moving millions of years into the past. Anthropological aesthetics of the Bronze and Stone ages are imaginatively explored through riffing on the quotidian. Sharp-toothed critters serve as clothing-line clippers for Dug’s tribe, while one inhabitant of the Bronze Age praises the superlative innovation of literal sliced bread in a bazaar.
But these tactile delights are little more than ephemeral, as the story never quite finds its footing because of a severe lack of strong personalities — an unexpected problem for an Aardman joint. As the protagonist, Dug is as anonymously affable as they come, only registering as a dreamer because of his permanently starry eyes and bumbling physicality — par for the course for a Redmayne character.
Every member of his tribe moves in the same lumbering manner — a crime for animated fare — leaving them virtually indistinguishable from one another. Dug’s sidekick swine Hognob possesses zero spoken lines but 10 times the charisma and expressiveness of his human companion. Tom Hiddleston makes the only impression as the Bronze Age’s Squidwardian ruler Lord Nooth; his vocal performance is fairly one-note in its guffawing snootiness, but it’s a distraction in a movie desperately in need of one.
Without a colorful ensemble to elevate it, the film gets bogged down in its drearily familiar premise — humble traditionalists learn that change is OK by beginning to believe in themselves and working together, or whatever.
Park’s earnestness has always been one of his best attributes as a storyteller, but that attitude dooms this foregone underdog arc to hitting every one of its familiar beats with tediously cloying sincerity. Where’s the inspired gallows humor that haunted the margins of “Chicken Run,” or the infectious barn burner wit that kept “Shaun the Sheep Movie” shuffling from one glorious set piece to the next?
The title is, indeed, a pun, and it’s the kind of joke that the film tries and fails to sustain itself with for most of its runtime. With each successive bit of wordplay, the leisurely delivery lurches further into the lethargic, in dire need of some elaborately orchestrated comic sequence to shock the comedy back to life.
What comes closest to that is the requisite football game between Stone Age and Bronze Age, but Park quickly runs out of ideas on how to make the sport appear kinetic or milk it for consistent laughs.
Aardman’s stubby clay models have always been a key to making stop-motion — an incredibly demanding animation style — feel informal and effortless. But the format feels limiting for the first time here, its restrictive motor function leaving these already paltry efforts at humor dead in their tracks. Here’s hoping “Shaun the Sheep 2” will be a rebound.
“Early Man” is currently playing at UA Berkeley 7.
Jackson Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].