Culture

Film & Television

‘Early Man’ returns Aardman to its roots

By Harry Windsor
The studio’s founders discuss prehistoric soccer and their history in Hollywood

You know a studio has walked away from Hollywood when it puts out a new film all about soccer. Early Man, from Bristol-based Aardman Animations and writer-director Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit), imagines the prehistoric origins of the beautiful game through a clashing of cultures, where cavemen fight for their freedom on the pitch against imperious Bronze-Age Bretons with comically exaggerated French accents.

It’s not a stretch to see the whole thing as a sly commentary on Aardman’s tumultuous history in Hollywood, where the animation house has cycled through studio distribution partners over the last 20 years, with some more appreciative of its defiantly English style than others. Aardman’s most successful film in America remains its first: 2000’s Chicken Run, fronted by a major star (Mel Gibson) and released by DreamWorks, which put serious marketing spend behind its release.

“It was lovely working with them for 10 years, and they really backed our films,” says Aardman co-founder David Sproxton. But subsequent films saw an increase in the number of notes winging their way to Bristol. On 2006’s Flushed Away, Sproxton remembers being told that slug characters had played well at screenings, and to increase their number. “So extra slugs were added quite late on: extra slug value.”

After a brief run with Sony – a “massive corporation” where “the bottom line was everything” – Aardman is now working with French distributor StudioCanal (ironically so, given Early Man’s villains). “We’ve realised our sensibilities are inevitably more aligned to Europe and the UK and indeed Asia,” says Sproxton. Luckily for Aardman, the American share of global box office continues to diminish overall. “And you do need a very large howitzer to blast your way through the marketing expenditure in America. StudioCanal has a more global focus.”

Where Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas were CGI, Early Man is a return to the studio’s signature claymation, and it looks almost aggressively unpolished. Peter Lord, who founded Aardman with Sproxton in 1972, says Park quite self-consciously went for a handmade look on this, his first feature since 2005’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: “In a world where everyone else is making CG films, there’s no point in pretending.” The result looks as unfashionably lumpy as Park’s early, Oscar-winning shorts, like Creature Comforts – though the filmmaker’s toolkit has expanded.

On Chicken Run, recalls Sproxton, all the skies were physically painted backdrops. Replacing or repainting them was an arduous task; some were as large as 30 feet. Now, however, Aardman’s scenic artists work on Photoshop rather than paint on canvas. “It gives us more flexibility. Most of the skies were done in post, because you can get better continuity in [terms of] mood. We put CG characters in some of the bigger crowd scenes, simply because it’s technically simpler and easier. But all the main characters are stop-frame throughout, because that gives us the greatest degree of expression.”

The heroes of Early Man are introduced hunting rabbits in their valley, a green utopia surrounded by rocky Badlands, where dinosaurs roam beside active volcanoes. After the tribe is driven out of its territory into the neighbouring wasteland, the young and ambitious Dug (Eddie Redmayne) challenges the invader Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) to a game of football. If they win, they’ll be allowed to return home. “It’s about teamwork and rising to the occasion when you’re up against the odds,” says Sproxton. Dug teams up with a local girl, Goona (Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams), who dreams of soccer stardom. “She helps them and sees the value in them. There’s a bit of a romantic thing; it’s not played massively.”

The film began with Park, who could see the comic potential in combining cavemen and football and brought the half-page idea to Aardman. “He’s fundamentally a director of comedy,” says Lord. “But it’s important to us that you care about the characters in the film, that the stakes are real.” Early Man is full of Park’s absurd humour, with bad puns, silly sight gags, and only a little sentiment. The film goes light on the fortune-cookie messaging that is prominent in American animated films, says Sproxton, though it’s there if you look. “It’s about ambition, trust, collaboration.”

Aardman has about six projects on the boil, though they’d be lucky if half of them get up, according to Lord. “We want Nick to make more films. He might not. I think he’s finding making a movie very, very exhausting. So maybe he’ll work in a shorter form.” Wallace and Gromit fans, rejoice.

Early Man is in cinemas now in Victoria and Queensland, and in other states from April 12.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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