Aardman movies do not do well here in the USA, as I’ve noted on previous titles. Each film makes less than the last, with Chicken Run actually being 20th highest grossing film here with $106M, Were-Rabbit making $56M, Pirates making $31M, Shaun The Sheep making $19M, and this movie looking like it will just break $10M. (Update: Looks stuck at around $8.25M.) I guess, given that Chicken Run is the highest grossing stop-motion film of all time (adjusting for inflation might put Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas ahead of it), we could say that people don’t like stop-motion animation films very much. And perhaps, sadly, less and less.
That said, it’s not hard to see why Early Man won’t be successful here. It’s not that it isn’t funny. It is. And cute and charming in that Aardman way. It’s that it’s about soccer, and chock-full of inside English soccer jokes courtesy of Rob Brydon, as both commentators. I got a few of ’em. Neither The Barbarienne nor The Flower got them, of course, but they liked the movie anyway.
The premise is cute and charming in the Aardman fashion: A stone-age tribe is kicked out of their valley paradise by some bronze-age bullies who wish to mine it. Our hero, Dug (Eddie Redmayne), through a series of wacky mishaps, ends up challenging the Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) to an inter-tribal soccer game in order to get it back. Dug’s meek stone-age tribe is run by the very meek Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) whom Dug completely failed to convince giving up rabbit-hunting for mammoth-hunting, but help comes in the form of a super-competent Bronze Age girl soccer player (Maise Williams) who teaches them how to play the game.
It’s absurd, of course, but it’s all in the service of gentleness. For example, Bobnar points out that the tribe has its hands full catching rabbits, so how could they even think of mammoths! But then, throughout the movie, the rabbit (rabbits?) they do encounter all get the upper hand on them. It’s a nice running gag, and the little clever touches more-or-less allow you to gloss over the extremely predictable mindset of the movie.
One can (and does), for example, get tired of “technology bad”, “girls are the best athletes”, “anachronistic diversity” as tropes to be trotted out. But Aardman movies tend to be slapstick farces—the best parts being the non-verbal parts, even when the movie, like Shaun The Sheep isn’t completely non-verbal—and they are very good at that, and everything around that is relatively unimportant trivia.
The Barb fell asleep briefly. She still enthused. As she does. The Flower liked it, and agreed that there were some wonderfully done visual aspects, but she has less than no affinity for soccer, and found the CGI parts very jarring. As an enthusiastic booster of all Aardman’s previous films, I have to say, I’m not all that big a booster of this one. It would not be my “go to” recommendation.
It is cute, though.