A couple weeks ago, I delivered an early rebuke of Peter Rabbit and talked about the prevalence of Shrek-style humor in modern family movies. I had dreaded Peter Rabbit, and looked forward to Feb 16 — the release of Early Man.
Early Man is the work of Aardman Animations, the studio famous for Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep. Directed by Nick Park, the film centers around Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his Stone Age tribe of rabbit hunters. They live in a peaceful valley, until one day the evil Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) takes over the area to strip for metals. He’s the leader of a powerful Bronze Age kingdom, and makes most of his money selling seats for his football games.
Dug challenges Nooth to a football match: if the cavemen win, they get the valley back. If they lose, they have to operate the mines for the rest of their lives.
Their early efforts seem to fall flat, until they discover their heritage as the very inventors of football. When Bronze Age citizen Goona (Maisie Williams) joins as their coach and teammate, it finally seems like they have a chance.
I’ll start off with the obvious. Visually, Early Man is great. It’s always refreshing to see claymation feature films. And, as I expected, Aardman’s technical prowess goes to new heights. Every motion is fluid. Most of the time the animation looks so smooth you’d think you’re watching a CGI film. They also throw in some good gags and references. In the very beginning, two dinosaurs fight in the style of Ray Harryhausen’s famous old dinosaur effects, complete with the jumpier animation. So much effort went into this film, and I do appreciate it for that.
Yet, the writing surprisingly fell flat. If you’ve seen the movie’s trailer, you know the entire plot. There are few surprises, and the clever bits ultimately have no impact on the story. There are some funny lines, but again the best jokes are in the trailers. Aside from one use of “crap” and a brief order to kill the main character (which of course isn’t followed through with) there’s no reason this movie needs a PG rating. It could easily be G, even with those two things.
I feel saddened, because the Aardman I know doesn’t play it safe. In A Close Shave, Gromit is framed as a murderer and lands in jail, while Wallace uncovers a conspiracy to turn all the local sheep into dog food. The Wrong Trousers had a master criminal worm his way into Wallace and Gromit’s house, force out the latter, and then imprison Wallace as a tool to commit a high-stakes robbery. Chicken Run did not shy away from the fact that the main characters constantly faced the threat of being literally axed. Heck, there’s a silhouetted scene of one chicken at the chopping block.
In comparison, Early Man feels far too tame. Don’t get me wrong, a laid-back family movie works too, but it still needs to bring something new to the table, like a refreshing story or some great comedy. Early Man’s story feels far too familiar, and the comedy again is sparse. It’s a fine movie to bring children to. It just offers little for more discerning audiences, adolescent and up.
In my last column, and in my review of Peter Rabbit, I condemned it for its crass humor. And while I still maintain the movie had glaring flaws, it at least offered something positive, such as Domhnall Gleeson’s performance. Not every joke landed, but at least some did.
With these two animated movies in theaters side-by-side, I can’t help but contrast them. On a technical side, yes, Early Man is the better movie. No rapping songbirds, a likeable protagonist with morals, no allergy scenes to stir up controversy — it has less points against it. To my utter shock though, if I had to choose between the two to watch again, I’d go with Peter Rabbit. Both are “meh” movies. But, Peter Rabbit is “meh” because it has some really good parts balanced against pretty bad parts. Early Man is “meh” because the story manages to be competent, but little else is worth the watch.
When it comes down to it, there’s one crime a movie can commit that eclipses all others. That crime is not Shrek-style humor, or riffing on classic characters without understanding their appeal. That crime is not bad acting, product placements, or shoehorned pop songs. The one terrible crime is being boring. As much as I rail against Peter Rabbit, it’s not boring.
Early Man, sadly, is.
The two films exist on opposite ends of a spectrum. One pushes the envelope arguably too far; the other plays things far too safe.
Something like the G-rated Winnie the Pooh or the recent Paddington 2 still win fans because of their clever humor and strong characters. Films like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, meanwhile, push the envelope with darker topics while being mindful of the family audience. Films like Captain Underpants play with juvenile humor a lot, but keep it tied up with positive themes and strong storytelling. Falling too far outside this spectrum results in the two subpar animated movies I’ve seen this February.
A month ago, I anticipated Peter Rabbit being a hot mess and believed that Early Man would swoop in a week later to make everything right again. My reality ended up so much different, and it’s made me rethink the way I approach movie critiques. Ultimately, I have to rank a film that does a lot right and a lot wrong better than a movie that does very little at all.
David Gouldthrope is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Animation Anaylsis runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.