Stop motion animation feels dated but universal. We watch and enjoy the clayful experience but aware that advanced computers could make this story in a far shorter time. It’s the movie equivalent of watching someone brighten their home with candlelight, or walking two blocks to a payphone to make a call when they have an Android in their pocket. It’s inefficient, but stop motion’s novelty is what generates its palpable pleasure, as recently unearthed in “Early Man”
Following a prehistoric caveboy named Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his attempts to save his village through a game of soccer, “Early Man” bodes the same charm as director Nick Park’s previous clay-ventures like “Chicken Run.” The humor here is fresh but isn’t beholden to pop culture trends as much as other animated films are, like 2018’s “Peter Rabbit.” Few things are laugh-out-loud funny or visually-enticing in “Early Man,” but the animation still follows a meticulous design principle, admirable in its effect to stay silly even when its structure is serious.
Dug is an admirable character and we don’t mind his leading the charge for 90 minutes. His soccer teammate Goona (Maisie Williams) is a free-thinking athlete with a chauvinistic bone to pick with society. Despite their round clay curves, the members of Dug’s tribe seem to fall flat. And Lord Nooth’s (Tom Hiddleston) only defining characteristic is his ability to annoy. One could not pluck him out otherwise from a crowd if they tried.
The concept is fun, but does feel akin to watching friends narrate their vacation photos, with only a few pictures or moments capturing your full attention. It’s also hard not to appreciate the meticulous effort that went into creating “Early Man,” what must have been a project of passion for all involved, otherwise why do it? But it’s hard to escape the sense that this movie, while amusing, will be forgotten.
That’s probably because stop motion animation really has little room to evolve or experiment as an art form. Constrained and procedural , minimal opportunity exists for one to break conformity and try something against the pot. “Early Man” utilized these devices and generated a flawed but enjoyable enough story to consume. But it does not evoke enough of a personality to stand the test of time.