I’ve been a sucker for Nick Park’s animated work since I first laid eyes on his Oscar-winning short Creature Comforts more than twenty years ago. (Little did I know that I’d already seen some of his stop-motion work in the “Penny” segments of Pee-wee’s Playhouse.) Wallace and Gromit won my heart soon afterwards, and I’ve enjoyed all of his work since then: shorts, features, and TV specials, all made for Aardman studios. I love the distinctive design of his characters and his signature blend of cleverness and silliness. One could never mistake a Nick Park movie for an animated feature by an American studio.

All of that is on display in his new feature Early Man, an endearing story of cavemen who form a football (Americans read: soccer) team in order to reclaim their home turf from the clutches of their greedy Bronze Age successors. Our youthful underdog hero Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his loyal sidekick Hognob (voiced by Park himself) are tormented by a self-aggrandizing bully named Lord Nooth, whose faux-French dialect disguises the fact that it’s Tom Hiddleston acting the part.They are joined by Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade, Miriam Margolyes, and the vocally versatile Rob Brydon.

Like most Aardman movies this one isn’t out to pummel you with gags or dazzle you with rapid-fire pacing. It’s content to take its time and amuse an audience (young or old) with funny-looking creatures, clever dialogue, subtle jokes, puns, and sheer nonsense. Park also understands the importance of giving the viewer rooting interest and provides it for us–you can’t help but love these characters.

Another mark of Aardman films is that they are proudly, resolutely British. I don’t pretend to get all the jokes in Early Man (my English son-in-law couldn’t stop laughing) but that’s OK because there are more than enough to go around.

Early Man may not have the punch or pizzazz of a mainstream Hollywood cartoon feature, but it has a tangible charm all its own. As a fan, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024