Friday, March 2, 2018

Early Man

A Match Made in Heaven
Early Man United, Playing with Feet of Clay

Earth is not in a good place. Timewise, it's in the Neo-pleistocene era as the title tells us. That covers a lot of ground, so they tell us (as the volcanos belch in the back-ground and homage is paid to the late Ray Harryhausen with our first sight of a stop motion Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops fighting in the background) that it is "Near Manchester." Helpful. Then, they zero in and say "Around lunch-time." Very good. That reassures us that it is not entirely accurate, scientifically, by showing us a lot of doughy bi-ped humans fighting over food at the same time than the dinosaurs are doing their cage-match. Biblically speaking, it's all good, because the people (and dinosaurs) are all made of clay—call it the "neo-plasticene" era, then.

But, I say that Earth is not in a good place, because while both humans and dino's are chowing down, a pesky meteorite wants to be right where the Earth is and slams into it creating a mushroom cloud and destroying the dinosaurs. Say good-bye to the "flintstonian" era of co-existence, then, but "humankind" survives by being covered in dirt and digging themselves out. Peering into the voluminous crater the meteorite has produced, they see at its center the very culprit what made it in the first place, a rock-spheroid, glowing red. They clamber down and try to pick it up, but it's too hot to handle. They drop it. And kick it. And kick it again. And again.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how football was born (it is, after all, around Manchester).
I've loved the Aardman Animation Studio films (the folks responsible for Early Man) since I first saw their Oscar-winning short "Creature Comforts"* in 1989. Since that first brilliant little short, they moved on to the Wallace and Gromit shorts, Chicken Run, the "Shaun the Sheep" series, shorts, and features and innumerable commercials featuring toothy-anthropomorphised...products. They have a distinctive feel, with a lovely combination of precise casting, meticulous animation, and a goofy "catch-as-catch-can" ability to use detail to create comedic possibilities that when they pave off makes you go "oh, that was a long time in planning."
The prep and story-sense is so good that they don''t have to do a lot of reaching or depend on short-shelf-life cultural references in order to garner laughs, which you see a lot of in animation these days. The humor of the Aardman staff is evergreen—it never falls out of fashion or relevancy (that's a real bonus for people who turn all lemony-puss at political references). They are classic comedians in the stripe of the silent clowns, vaudevillians and early television; they don't look at today's headlines, they know that there is more than enough material to mine out of the human condition and the absurdity of the everyday. 
Even if you're a caveman.

Advance in time "a few ages," and the species living in the crater hasn't advanced all that much. They subsist on rabbits (if they can catch them, but rabbits haven't made it this far by being caught all the time) and one of the cave-dwellers, Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) thinks it might be better and more sustainable if they hunted mammoths instead (they're big, have more meat than a rabbit...) but the tribe chief (Timothy Spall) thinks that's a BAD idea (they're big...), but the other tribe members decide to give it a "go," and their maiden hunt is interrupted by an invasion from a tribe who's advanced to the bronze age looking for precious minerals. Led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) with a singularly snide french accent), they repulse the defense of the cave-dwellers and push them off to the Bad-lands outside of the crater. For the caveman, this sucks. But there's nothing they can do, they are clearly outmatched and can't fight back.
Dug in Bronze-town (note the crosswalk)
During the melee, Dug finds himself knocked out and being carried to the advanced town, which is quite civilized by relative standards, and is very disorienting to a caveman. In attempting to escape, he is captured and, desperate, he makes a deal with Lord Nooth to a football match with Nooth's elite team; if they win, they get to return to the valley, and if they lose, they will be consigned to work in the Lord's mines for the rest of their natural lives. For Nooth, it's a win-win, for there is no way that the cavemen can learn the game and gain the skills to win, and he'll be able to charge a premium for the town's populace to see it.
Dug goes back to the Bad-Lands and informs the tribe that if they win the match, they'll be able to return to their homeland. Only one thing stands in the way—teaching them how to play football and actually win. If they don't, then their situation becomes much worse. How hard can it be?
A lot, actually. The trouble starts with all the rules in the rule-book, and their general lack of coordination. Then, their one and only soccer-ball...gets punctured. Along with their hopes. Dug (along with his pet Hognob) takes it upon himself to sneak into the Bronze-town and steal soccer balls to practice with. Initially, it does not go well...
But, with some difficulty, he manages to secure enough balls for the tribe to practice,, as well as an ally, Goona (Maisie Williams), who, because she's a girl, has no chance to realize her dream of becoming a champion footballer. Goona becomes their de facto coach, training the tribe the fine arts of footballing with the theory that if they work as a team they'll be able to defeat a team of elitist, selfish star-players. That's the theory, but will it come in practicw...or...after practice and they actually play?
There is a wealth of material here and director Nick Park and his co-writers Mark Burton and James Higginson, fill the film to near-bursting with jokes, both verbal and visual. So thick with incident is this film that how it turns out becomes obvious very early on in the proceedings. But, it doesn't matter, because it has so many surprises along the way that it all feels fresh and funny. That is something to cheer about.
And when you think that the primary way that this film is made is by meticulously creating it one frame at a time—there is some CGI in the backgrounds but that's it—you come away from Aardman films gob-smacked by the artistry and sheer British stiff-upper-lipped tenacity to produce a ninety minute feature at...such...a...steady...brilliant...pace. Do the math: let's assume 89 minutes at (let's say) the video rate of 30 frames a second and that's (click, click, click) 2,670 separate intricate pictures they had to make in order do the whole feature. Just imagine someone giving you that assignment with all the detail and personality that Nick Park puts into the story and the frame...
Exactly. Making a movie—any kind of movie—takes a lot of talent and something of a miracle. You try—I try, anyway—to keep that in mind every time stepping inside an auditorium to see a film. It gives you a little respect right off the bat and a little responsibility to keep the people-hours in mind and not just the budget and terabytes. Those are just statistics and hurdles of their own sorts. But, movie like Early Man shows you much work goes into something as doggedly silly as this movie. Something of a miracle in itself, actually.


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