Movie Review ~ Early Man


The Facts
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Synopsis: Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures and woolly mammoths roamed the earth, Early Man tells the story of Dug, along with sidekick Hognob as they unite his tribe against a mighty enemy Lord Nooth and his Bronze Age City to save their home.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall

Director: Nick Park

Rated: PG

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: With all due respect to our prehistoric ancestors, I’ve always found movies about the dawn of man to be a bit of a drag. In films like the prologue of 2001: A Space Odyssey to One Million Years B.C. to 10,000 B.C. to The Croods, there’s only so far my imagination can take me before I’m wondering when technology will find its way into the lives of primitive man. That may help explain why I wasn’t thrilling to the notion of spending an hour and a half with the cavemen and women brought to stop-motion life in Early Man.

I’ve been a fan of Aardman Animations since their Wallace and Gromit days and they’ve continued to churn out quality work for the past several decades. They’ve brought the barnyard to life in Chicken Run and the Shaun the Sheep Movie and snagged an Oscar nomination for their work on The Pirates! Band of Misfits in 2012. While their latest effort is packed with jokes on top of jokes and is another wonderful use of the stop-motion technique, it falls far short of the overall entertainment package Aardman has come to be known for.

Early Man is set at the tail end of the Stone Age and introduces us to the tribe led by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner). Hunting rabbits as a group and going about their daily lives without much disruption seems like the long-term plan for all but young Dug (Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl) dreams of something more. Instead of the mammoth mammoth hunt he years for, he gets a taste of the future when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, Muppets Most Wanted) and his Bronze Age army tries to take over their land.

When Dug mistakenly hitches a ride back with Nooth’s troops he gets an eyeful. The crude stone utensils, clothes, and housing he’s used to give way to the latest in advanced design. Then there’s the stadium which houses the popular football (aka soccer for us Americans) games and it’s when he accidentally finds himself on the field and under Nooth’s glare that Dug proposes a challenge. If he and his tribe can beat the best players Nooth has to offer, Nooth will vacate the land. If they lose, they’ll be a nomadic tribe without even the most basic creature comforts they were used to.

The bulk of the film has Dug getting his team in gear with the help of a could-be love interest named Goona. As expected, the rag-tag members of this football party start without a prayer but (spoiler alert!) get good enough to take on Nooth’s ace team. It’s a disappointingly predictable affair with many of the standard lessons learned along the way. There are ample bits of comedy and visual sight gags but its low impact laughter if you think about it.

Director Nick Park could have trimmed the movie by a good ten minutes, truncating some of the characters more repetitive tics and eliminating a few of them all together. I kept waiting for something to inspire as well as entertain but Park and company just can’t get out of the deep valley of familiarity they’ve found themselves in. If there’s a strong positive for the movie, it’s that it’s as family friendly as they get. While adult audiences have had a spotty run in theaters lately, with Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit, and now Early Man, families looking to spend some time at the theaters have at least three decent options.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Pirates! Band of Misfits

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Pirate Captain sets out on a mission to defeat his rivals Black Bellamy and Cutlass Liz for the Pirate of the year Award. The quest takes Captain and his crew from the shores of Blood Island to the foggy streets of Victorian London.

Stars: Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Imelda Staunton, Martin Freeman, Jeremy Piven

Director: Peter Lord

Rated: PG

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Still a kid at heart, I secretly love being able to see animated films and enjoy them through the eyes of an adult.  I’ve no problem finding time to see a PIXAR film with the same verve that I have for the newest R-rated action blockbuster because there’s the same great escapist entertainment to be had in the world of animation.  The animators at Aardman have long been a favorite of mine thanks to their pioneering work with stop-motion animation and their creation of the Wallace and Gromit characters.

This year when the Oscars were announced I found there was only one film among the five films selected as Best Animated film nominees that I hadn’t seen and it just happened to be Aardman’s latest effort, The Pirates! Band of Misfits.  I missed this one on several occasions in the theater and after seeing the film I regret not taking advantage of seeing the movie on the big screen with the added bonus of 3D technology.  It’s one of the strongest nominees and could just find itself with the Oscar when the big night rolls around.

The film starts off in a fairly standard way and I was just settling in for what I thought would be a familiar story when the movie pulled a nice switcheroo and turned a standard plot line on its head.  What begins as a tale of a dippy Pirate Captain and his rag-tag crew entering the Pirate of the Year Awards quickly veers into creative territory involving exotic animals, adventure on the high seas, and a few run ins with a very disagreeable Queen Victoria.  Along the way there are ample amounts of laughs and superior displays of creativity that have become the standard calling card of the folks at Aardman.

As the Pirate Captain, Hugh Grant (Cloud Atlas) doesn’t rely on his proper stutter and stammer but instead uses a light air to suggest that our hero isn’t as aware as he should be.  This Pirate Captain is lovably clueless, making for a winning combination when teamed up with his faithful band of misfit pirates with great names like The Albino Pirate, The Pirate with Gout, The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate, and The Pirate with a Scarf voiced nicely by Freeman (the current Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). 

A few historic characters pop up as supporting players like Charles Darwin who is reinvented as a lovesick dweeb with a thing for Vicki (that’s Queen Victoria to you commoners) who won’t give him the time of day.  It’s the Queen Victoria character that made me laugh the most — given new life by Aardman as a scheming villainess and voiced with prim steeliness by Staunton.  This Queen is no slouch — director Lord and screenwriter Gideon Defoe (who wrote the source book) make her nice and nasty without ever utilizing any truly mean jabs.

Like the other nominees (Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, and Wreck-It Ralph), The Pirates! Band of Misfits has a lot of heart in its themes of loyalty and friendship that won’t be lost on youngsters and grown-ups that view it.  The blend of stop-motion and computer animation is seamless and beautifully detailed…showing that Aardman gets better with each film they produce.  A worthy nominee for Oscar glory, this is an easy-going fantasy adventure with enough visual gags for kids and laughs for adults.