Susan Granger’s review of “Early Man” (Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate)
With a filmography that includes “Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit” and “Shaun the Sheep,” U.K.-based Aardman Animation specializes in Claymation, a labor-intensive form of stop-motion that uses figures made of clay.
Animators pose the figures for each frame – every movement, every gesture – with 24 frames for each second of film. For every shot, the seven-inch-tall silicone figures are bolted into place on cleverly detailed sets that stand about two-feet high. Mouth movements are synched to pre-recorded vocal tracts.
Claymation began back in 1897, as artists sculpted characters from modeling clay, then photographed them, painstakingly moving the figurines ever so slightly between each picture. When displayed in rapid succession, the pictures created the illusion of movement. Edison Manufacturing produced the first clay animation film, “The Sculptor’s Welsh Rarebit Dream,” in 1908.
Set sometime between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, Aardman’s most recent release takes place around Manchester, England, where the young Neaderthal Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) suddenly finds himself and his haplessly inept, rabbit-hunting clan on the verge of eviction from their once-isolated forest.
Greedy Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston with an exaggerated French accent) has dispatched his colonizing troops on bronze-armored mammoths to mine ore in their verdant valley.
So Dug’s cave-dwelling tribe’s future depends on winning a soccer showdown against Nooth’s formidable footballers.
Fortunately, Dug’s ragtag, inexperienced team is coached by Goona (voiced by Maisie Williams), who dreams of being a soccer star but isn’t allowed to play on sexist Lord Nooth’s team. Extensive training montages prove that she’s determined to prove herself on the pitch.
Utilizing quirky characters created by Nick Park, it’s superficially scripted by Mark Burton and James Higginson as the first prehistoric underdog sports movie. Too bad it’s not more original and inventive. All the sight/sound gags are predictable and formulaic, even clichéd, many stemming from “The Flintstones.”
The smartest and most memorable character is Dug’s sentient wild boar Hognob, whose grunts and snuffles supplied by director Nick Park.
On the Grange Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Early Man” is a silly 6, a primeval disappointment.