Review – Darwin Can Suck It (“Early Man”)

No one puts as much effort into his movies as Nick Park. CG animation is one thing, but stop-motion animation is time consuming, exhausting, and requires copious amounts of effort and patience. Just look at his painstakingly creative Wallace & Gromit shorts and his exceptional movie, Chicken Run, and you’ll see what I mean.
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With no shortage of puns (“eat your primordial soup”) and British tongue in cheek, Park sets his sights on a bunch of not-so-bright cavemen (and women) that come from a long ancestral line of other cavemen that, believe it or not, invented football from a wayward meteor (uh… we call it ‘soccer’ over here across the pond, ya’ll). A millennia and many ages later, cave dweller & hunter-gatherer Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and leader, Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall), are out with their looney tribe of nitwits (including their pet, an anthropomorphic wild boar named Hobnob) hunting the fearsome rabbit when they’re suddenly introduced to the Bronze Age!

Looks like their secluded home was only a few miles away from a bustling, over-populated feudal township loaded with every bronze nick-knack, weapon, and household amenity you can think of. Clumsy Dug, through a series of wacky circumstances, gets himself caught in their Roman Coliseum-ish game of football,  under the powerful dictatorship of Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddelston with a hilarious French accent), a visionary eccentric and narcissistic ruler. But seeing that his impeccably unbeaten team needs a rival team to play… or ANY team, for that matter, gives Dug an ultimatum; either his tribe play or else they get sent to the mines FOREVER!

But what team (who knows nothing about football) is there without a ringer in their group? Enter Goona (Maisie Williams), a local merchant in town who’s not only an exceptional footballer, but banned as a player (girls aren’t allowed to play. Horrors!). While she’s coaching Dug and the gang with a training montage, we learn that Lord Nooth’s harpy of a wife, Queen Oofeefa (Miriam Margolyes), is dead-set against the match. She even dictates her anger through a ‘message-bird’, one of the funnier scenes in the movie. Hijinks ensue left and right as Dug needs balls to play with, Hobnob is caught in Lord Nooth’s bathroom, and Goona tries to help Dug find his balls.

If you ever saw The Longest Yard, you pretty much know what happens next; Lord Nooth’s desperate and sinister act against Dug knowing that his team might actually win. Who wins in the final match? Give you one guess! You really have to appreciate the time and effort that goes into making a film of this nature. One minute of stop-motion animation = one weeks worth of time. That’s nuts! However, it’s all worth it on the screen with these bizarre people sporting goofy over-sized teeth. The script by Mark Burton (Gnomeo & Juliet) and first-timer James Higginson, has a bounty of sight gags (shop sign: Jurassic Pork), loads of puns, innuendos, and plays-on-Prehistoric-words, and a very kid-friendly script that adults can have fun with too.

Director Nick Park knows how to set up and deliver joke in animation, especially when the character never utters a word. Fans of Creature Comforts or Wallace & Gromit know what I’m talking about. Having done this since 1985 has really honed his skill as an animator and his patience has paid off in yet another winning movie. Even the voice talent are hilarious to listen to, a second attribute that Park makes sure he always gets. Oh sure, there are other animators that deal in stop-motion: Henry Selick and his gorgeous Nightmare Before Christmas, Laika Entertainment’s amazing Kubo and the Two Strings, and Mikros Image Canada for their stunning The Little Prince, to name a few, but Park is still one of my favorites.

Year One (2009)

Once upon a time a bunch of executives said, “Hey, why don’t we get comedy greats Jack Black, Michael Cera, David Cross, Paul Rudd, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria, Olivia Wilde, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Horatio Sanz and make a movie about Early Man?” Somebody should have said, “NO! For the love of God! NO! Don’t do it!!”

Working from what I’m guessing was a script (there was SO much ad-libbing going on), this overall unfunny movie takes some clueless cavemen from the early Biblical time period into the Bronze Era…  and all within a few hours. Say hello to two inept idiots, Zed (Black) and his BFF, Oh (Cera), as they’re part of a tribe of animal-skin wearing hunter-gatherers, but they speak in 21st Century English jargon. Yeah, it’s gonna be THAT kinda movie. While Oh is a whiny-little wimp who never gets the girl, Zed is a boorish delusional numskull who, even after eating the Forbidden Fruit of Knowledge, remains just as dumb as before.

After getting kicked out of the tribe, Zeb and Oh meet Cain and Able (Cross and Rudd) and witness Able murdering Cain straight away. Cain, who refuses to believe that he killed his brother, escapes with Zed and Oh to a local village to avoid Cain’s father. There, Zed and Oh meet up with their old tribe tribal flames, Maya (June Diane Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple) who are being sold into slavery. Things go south and soon Zed and company are attacked by Roman centurions on their way to Sodom. Luckily, Zed and Oh escape to the desert camp of Abraham (Azaria) and his son, Issac (Mintz-Plasse).

Once Zed and Oh get to Sodom (the BIG city), they find Cain, whose been upgraded to a Roman soldier. He gets the boys into the Roman guards so they can look for their girls, but the city is under the rule of the King (Xander Berkeley) and his extremely weird High Priest (Platt). The city burns virgins alive as ‘an offering to the gods to get rain’, much to the chagrin of Zed, who finds out that Maya is next on the virginal list. This sets up a very, very long third act where Zed and Oh try and rescue their respective girlfriends and consequently free Sodom from its cruel rule.

You’d think coming from a comedy master like Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day) this would be comedic gold, but it wasn’t. It bombed BIG time at the box office and rightfully so. The script (??) from Ramis and Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg (both from The Office TV series) was terribly weak; strung together like a collection of bad SNL skits that didn’t work, with abusive ad-libbing from everyone that jumped the track more than once. You can actually see the actors trying to be funny, which is never a good sign in a comedy movie.

Yes, there are a few amusing moments here and there (Azaria’s Abraham is the best part), but the necessary chemistry between Black and Cera is zero. Everyone else looked either bored, tired, or just wanted their paycheck and go home. But you have to give points to the all the production design, which was quite good. Remember those hopelessly bad parody movies like Scary Movie, Disaster Movie, and Meet The Spartans? Yeah, this movie is like that, but nowhere near the genius level of comedy like the Zucker Bros. movies Airplane!, Top Secret!, or all their Naked Gun movies, which this movie desperately wanted to be.

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