See, I have friends who didn’t like Early Man because it’s all about football. I get it, the early ad campaigns sorta downplayed that aspect, but coming up on release the signs were definitely there. I hold no great love for football, it were always the boy sport growing up and I had neither the talent nor interest to care. For some reason as a kid I said I supported Chelsea. I think it was one of two teams that I knew the names of. Aside from that nothing else stuck around.
I say this to explain that there ain’t nothing in my disposition that would lend me to the film. I really liked it anyway. There’s this nationwide, possibly worldwide, comprehension of the football monoculture (except from you America). So societally ingrained that jokes about the offside rule and free kicks and biased referees and simpering primadonnas just play regardless of your investment. Everyone knows the drama and tension of a penalty kick. It’s why even though sports movies are all about sports, the best ones are never about the sport.
Like, think about Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham, or Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl or heck even like Escape to Victory which I watched only recently with my grandmother because it was about the war. Nobody in these films cares about football, they care about what football represents. Rebellion or pride or passion. The chance to become more than yourself, and the more that more can be.
Early Man don’t do this, it does exactly the opposite in fact. Here football is its own signifier, there ain’t no road for these characters to attain virtue through football because football is virtue in itself. I can see how that might be alienating. I guess it never struck me that way because the football here is a vehicle for Aardman’s own brand of cartoon slapstick.
It’s just immaculate. I allow myself to be awed by the construction of the thing. Y’all gotta stop for a moment and realise that these small dudes are actually made of plasticine. Suddenly everything seems huge, monumental. Aardman have worked competently in computer animation before, small ambitions feel like they can be excused because the herculean task is the one that is taking place behind the camera.
They make it so clear too, it’s about a small caveman tribe living in the verdant crater formed by the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. Everything outside is a volcanic blasted wasteland. They engage in creating a sequence of literal walled off worlds. The crater, a walled Bronze Age encampment, the football stadium itself, the world is engaged in the act of making itself small. Horror arrives to the tribe when the evil Lord Nooth kicks them out of their paradise to create another mine.
In the process he accidentally kidnaps Eddie Redmayne’s Dug who inadvertently makes his way onto the pitch during a big game. Humiliated and up for execution he challenges the best team in the known world to a match to reclaim the valley. Assisted by the requisite spunky girl, trying to prove to the men that women can play ball too they set about whipping the clumsy and oafish tribe into a team to take on the champions.
A short segue into heist mode aside, the film plays this out as straight as its tight running time suggests. There’s no real attempt at diversion or distraction, you get a few life lessons and a big game. There’s a frankness to the construction that lends its own sorta charm. It comes across so honest and unthinking though that there’s whole bits that probably would have come across better with some examination.
Like, the good guys are all British and the bad guys are all vaguely foreign. I mean, most punches are directed at the most common target of our own national xenophobia: the French, but there are jabs taken at many. It’s not really the best look at the current political moment. Especially when the grand virtues of our heroes are their isolationism and ignorance. Also, are we really wanting to tell a story about how colonialism and exile is bad for the poor Britons?
Oh, there’s an uncomfortable tension held there. I don’t even think this is a film by hardcore brexiteers. I think Aardman’s identity is the issue, they want so desperately to be a national icon, the way they hold that in their art can be more or less comfortable. There hasn’t been no reckoning yet, they haven’t properly considered the meaning of their nationalist identity. How it exhibits itself, the forms it can and should take.
Consider: they made a film about the most popular sport in the world and I can guarantee you it will not sell outside the UK. That’s a losing move no matter how victorious the film.
Early Man is currently screening in UK cinemas.