There’s a terrific movie somewhere in “Early Man” that apparently got lost in translation. The latest from Aardman Animation, the studio most well-known for their “Wallace and Gromit” cartoons, boasts an insane voice cast featuring the likes of Eddie Redmayne (“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”), Maisie Williams (“Game of Thrones”) and Tom Hiddleston (“Thor: Ragnarok”), as well as some undeniably beautiful animation. At first glance, the idea of a group of cavemen having to face Bronze Age-invaders even seems ripe for the kind of Monty Python-esque humor that Aardman trades in, but after an inspired first act, the humor steadily spirals into clumsy pratfalls and dragged-out unfunny gags.
The argument will be made that part of the problem is the aforementioned poor translation between the decidedly British script and American audiences. This is first and foremost a soccer movie, a sport that doesn’t hold as much water in the U.S. as it does overseas. However, “Early Man” is missing the one thing that every underdog sports movie must have: its heart.
For all its montages set to inspiring music and “teamwork makes the dream work” speeches, there’s nothing going on beneath the surface to keep viewers engaged. None of the characters are interesting beyond the ludicrous amounts of talent behind them, even for memorable quirks. Likewise, nothing about the story takes advantage of its unique prehistoric trappings after the familiarity of the sports movie tropes set in. It’s just a bore.
This goes double for the humor. Every once in a great while, there’s a funny line or artfully constructed pun, but these are drowned out by a painful series of attempts at physical comedy that lack any sense of timing or wit. They’re simply not funny because they either overstay their welcome or aren’t any good to begin with. The best moments are those when writers Mark Burton and James Higginson (“Shaun the Sheep Movie”) lean into the insanity of their core idea. There’s a hysterical sequence involving a giant duck that’s so unexpectedly brilliant it dwarfs every aspect of the movie around it. Instead of taking ideas like this further, though, they usually settle for, “Get it? It’s funny because they’re cavemen.”
At the very least, the animation is consistently dynamic and idiosyncratically dazzling. The first scene alone features a perfect combination of stop-motion and CGI that the talented animators at Aardman work to create a grander sense of scale than any of their previous productions. The scenes set in the soccer stadium may lack energy from the writing, but the animation does lend it a certain amount of liveliness. Even when there’s nothing going on in the foreground, the backgrounds alone are almost gorgeous in how they evoke the era in which “Early Man” takes place. At several points, they’re almost reminiscent of the Academy Award-winning production design from “The Lord of the Rings.”
The vocal talent also exceeds the script, with Hiddleston in particular donning a thick, unrecognizable French accent, but visuals and voices alone aren’t enough of a substitute for stale writing. Any intermittent charm offered by the animation or brief forays into smarter humor is canceled out by a crippling lack of heart and laughs.