Celebrating the best of British animation with Aardman's 'Early Man'

26 Jan 2018 BY Michael Prescott in Film Features

6 mins
Early Man
Early Man

Aardman Animations are a British institution, a Bristol-based studio responsible for the creation of films such as Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep Movie, characters including Morph and Wallace & Gromit, plus TV show Creature Comforts. Their latest, Early Man, is a stop-motion comedy in which co-founder Nick Park directs his first solo feature.

Set during the dawn of humankind, it follows caveman Dug (voiced by Into Film ambassador Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe whose valley home - and way of life - comes under threat from a Bronze Age civilization, led by the wicked Lord Nooth. After being turfed out of this familiar setting, Dug finds himself carted to the Bronze Age city and accidentally ends up disguised as one of the players in a confusing new game… a newly-invented sport called football. After removing his armour and revealing himself to be an imposter, he challenges Lord Nooth to a winner-takes-all match to save his homeland. The only problem is neither he nor his tribe have ever played the game before, and have no idea how it works!

With the aid of a Bronze Age girl named Goona - one of many puns in the film - the cavemen learn the rules of the game and practice in preparation for the big showdown. Evoking films like Bend It Like Beckham, the film takes on the structure of many a classic underdog sports movie, from The Mighty Ducks to Eddie the Eagle, culminating in a high-stakes game of football in which an elite team face off against a group of amateurs who have seemingly little hope of victory.

In an interview with the UK film magazine Sight & Sound, director Nick Park also references plucky underdog hits such as The Full Monty. Early Man also has a hint of Billy Elliot about it: a British feel-good sports story which rallies against gender stereotypes. Furthermore, these are both about working class characters set in northern towns, and this is a trope which Aardman's animation really embraces (harking back to the studio's debut feature, Chicken Run). Dug's tribe have an assortment of regional accents resembling modern cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle. It's a small but significant touch, which allows a young person to hear a range of accents - and perhaps even something resembling their own voice - represented on screen.

This is also used as a gentle source of humour. One of the tribe being frightened by the prospect of being confined to a mine for the rest of his life before suddenly exclaiming "what's a mine?" in a Midlands twang, as seen in the trailer, is a nice example of this. The laughs throughout are trademark Aardman: full of silly slapstick moments, physical comedy set-pieces and faintly rude humour, evoking silent films and its more modern incarnations including characters such as Mr. Bean. The Stone/Bronze Age setting is also used to set up and deliver a number of jokes, including a Flintstones-like approach to using animals in creative ways, from shaving to shoes.

The prehistoric era is also a source of adventure and imagination in titles such as Ice Age and The Good Dinosaur, feeding into our curiosity about the world and its development, be it through geography, history or science. These films - as well as previous Aardman titles - share a love of animals. Titles like Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep Movie are creature-centric in which we enter worlds dominated by animals, just as Toy Story invites us to revel in a universe of talking toys. Even in their films The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists and Arthur Christmas, sidekick animals, creatures or pets - such as parrots and reindeer - are integral. In Early Man, Dug is accompanied by his trusty pet boar who acts as the Gromit to his Wallace, and a funny messenger bird is sure to provoke chuckles from young audiences.

The intimate and intricate Claymation takes a great deal of time, effort and dedication, and the influence of animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts), from setting to style, is clear to see. Aardman's attention-to-detail means that each character has his or her own individual look using a mix of Plasticine, silicon and wire. There's also a contrast between the movement, costumes and facial features of the Stone and Bronze Age characters; the more "advanced" civilisation have smaller teeth and smoother bodies, for instance. The film's animation director Will Becher reveals more on our YouTube channel, and you can also watch our behind-the-scenes video of the making of the Shaun the Sheep Movie.

We've recently put together seven film lists to celebrate the many crafts of animation, including stop-motion, as well as hand drawncut-outrotoscopingVFX3D/CGI, and the history of the genre. There will also be a series of screenings around the country in March 2018 which celebrate women in animation for International Women's Day (8th March) and the BFI's Anim18 initiative. Like their celebrated back-catalogue, Early Man will entertain and charm young audiences with its silly, slapstick humour as well as providing encouragement on the many benefits of sport, from teamwork to persistence, as the studio continues to represent the best of British animation through their impressive work.

Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott, Curation Coordinator

Michael has an MA in Film Studies with Screenwriting from Sheffield Hallam University. He has previously worked at the British Council and on the BFI Film Academy, and has volunteered at organisations including Sheffield Doc/Fest and Cinema for All.

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