Hats off to Aardman for creating yet another classic piece of stop-motion hilarity. Early Man may not be their greatest achievement or contain the most original story, but it's got a big heart and when you're not outright laughing, you'll be giggling at the numerous in-jokes and references to classic movies and sporting events. Lionsgate brings Early Man to Blu-ray with a well-chiseled video presentation and a rock-solid Atmos mix along with a couple decent bonus features. If you've loved what Nick Park and the rest of the Aardman team has produced so far - you're gonna love this one. Recommended.
"Well, I'm not playing. I'm an old man… I'm nearly 32!"
Ever since I saw the first Wallace and Gromit shorts, I've been hooked on the zany creations of Nick Park and the rest of the Aardman crew. Their distinct character designs lend a level of absurdity that makes the deadpan humor all the funnier - in my opinion anyway. I've come across some odd ones out there who never "got it" with Aardman, but after listening to some complaints it sounds more like a lack of concentration than problems with the content. If you're not paying attention with a latte in one hand and your phone in the other - you're not going to get the joke. The same is true for Nick Park's latest Early Man featuring the terrific voice talents of Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, and Maisie Williams. If you're not paying attention, you're going to miss some great movie references as well as some terrific jokes.
At its core, Early Man an underdog sports movie that plays every beat of that predictable song. Everything from 80s ski movies to the gridiron classics of yore followed this exact formula and Early Man doesn't deviate from it. Where Early Man scores a lot of points is in how the story is told. Cast the story back into the Stone Age as an underdog tribe of knuckle-dragging cavemen led by Dug (Eddie Redmaye) and his pet pig Hognob (Nick Park) have to play a winner-takes-all soccer tournament against the Bronze Age diabolically greedy Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) in order to take back their peaceful valley where they can hunt big game like rabbits.
Now, I wouldn't in any way call my self a soccer hooligan. I never played the sport as a kid, it's popularity was after my time. However, I've grown an interest in it. Slowly I'm absorbing the game through a process of pub-osmosis. Whenever I'm at a nice pub enjoying a burger and a pint - soccer always seems to be on one of the many large flatscreen TV's adorning the room. Pay enough attention and you start to get why people love it so much. I mention this only because you don't need to know or love soccer to enjoy Early Man. Enough of the jokes stick without requiring an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. That said, I do feel like a couple of strikes flew past my head. Overall the focus of the story is on the Dug and his clan of cavemen led by the elderly 32-year-old Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) and their quest to become better players and save their homes.
On top of some great jokes and bucket-loads of charm, one thing that I absolutely adored about Early Man were the numerous Ray Harryhausen references. The film opens with a terrific recreation of the Ceratosaur vs Triceratops fight from One Million Years B.C. - and it's a riot, setting the tone for the rest of the film. Several more over-sized critters make appearances throughout the rest of the movie that looks less like the traditional googly-eyed Aardman characters and more like Harryhausen creations. The giant duck is a bit that never got old and just added more flavor to an already charming movie.
Early Man isn't the best feature Aardman has ever produced, but it is still pretty damn great. Its sense of humor and hijinks ensures that a steady stream of laughs and giggles will be had throughout the 89-minute runtime. This film definitely deserved a better fate than opening the exact same weekend as Marvel's Black Panther. Granted it's a piece of counter-programming that isn't designed to bust box office records, but it hardly deserved to be cast off in the shadow of a giant movie like that. Since few folks caught this one in theaters, now is the time to discover it for yourself. If you're an ardent Aardman fan, you're sure to be pleased with this little endeavor. If you have a love for Harryhausen movies, soccer, and the schlocky caveman movies of yesteryear, well, there's plenty of stuff for you to enjoy too.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Early Man arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate films in a two-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital set. Housed in an eco-friendly Blu-ray case with identical slipcover artwork, the film is pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc. The disc loads to trailers for other Lionsgate releases before arriving at an animated main menu with traditional navigation options.
There's something to be said for shooting stop-motion animated films at high resolution and then working form a 4K DI, this 1080p 1.85:1 transfer is beautiful. One of the things I love about all stop-motion features are the finer details. Because they're not digitally created or hand-drawn, they're practical objects with a natural weight and presence so they command the eye to look at everything on the screen. Everything is on display here. Details are sharp and crystal clear allowing you to take in all of the great character designs, set pieces, and all the great creatures this film throws at you. From individual hairs on the cavemen to the blades of grass on the soccer field - it's there for you to examine and wonder how they achieved it. Colors are terrific with plenty of primary pop - green is also a color that gets plenty of play considering the sport in question. Black levels and contrast are spot on ensuring this image enjoys a terrific sense of three-dimensional depth. My only complaint here really is that the film isn't available on 4K Ultra HD in the United States - at least yet. You can import it, which I am very tempted to do if Lionsgate doesn't pull the trigger on a full 4K UHD release here in the states.
Color me a bit tickled when the Dolby Atmos intro video scrolled up to tease my sound system! I wouldn't have expected Early Man to get much use out of a full object-focused audio mix like that, but sure enough, the film manages it beautifully. From the opening Dawn of Time scene depicting the rise of everyone's favorite sport to the big crowded stadium packed to the gills with screaming fans - this Atmos mix is a sonic delight. The vertical channels don't see a lot of unique object activity except in a couple notable gags with the giant duck - but the overhead channels work to expand the sense of space and atmosphere beautifully. Dialogue is crystal clear and easy to hear throughout - even during the busiest of action moments or sports fanfare. The score by Harry Gregson Williams and Tom Howe punches up the big events and rounds out the mix perfectly. All around this is a terrific audio mix that lends itself to the sense of humor and general silliness of the film.
While the A/V presentation of Early Man is top notch, the bonus feature package is sadly a bit on the slim side. What's here is generally pretty great and does offer a nice look at the production of the film, but when you have a stop-motion feature like this, you kinda want to know more and see more about how the film was put together.
Before the Beginning of Time: Crafting Early Man (HD 14:43)
Nick Park: Massaging the Funny (HD 8:47)
The Valley Meets the Bronze (HD 7:32)
Hanging at Aardman Studios: A Workshop Exploration (HD 7:50)
If you love the playful silly slice of life that Aardman can deliver, you're going to have a great time with Early Man. You don't need to be a complete soccer hooligan to love what the show has to offer. The great gags, talented voice cast, and the terrific stop-motion characters breathe a lot of life into this little flick. I had a blast with it and can't wait to show it to some friends and family. Lionsgate has done right by Early Man by delivering a beautiful A/V presentation that is crystal clear and makes great use of the sonic range Atmos has to offer. Bonus features may be a tad slim, but they're worth picking through. The only way this release could be made better is if Early Man was also released on 4K Ultra HD here in the United States as it was in other territories. If Lionsgate never brings that disc over, rest easy knowing this Blu-ray is a worthwhile investment all the same. Recommended.