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Early Man (2018)

It’s not quite one of their bests but even a mid-level Aardman movie still presents enough pleasures to justify one viewing. Early Man is in that big-eyed, big-toothed stop-motion clay animation style they’re renowned for, so it makes even more visual sense that we’re following cavemen. What I wasn’t expecting was that the entire movie would be a sports film about the cavemen facing the team of elite soccer players of the Bronze Age. Once that realization settled in, I began lowering my expectations, which lowered further from the less imaginative use of comedy. I chuckled here and there but this is a comedy that relies much upon slapstick. It’s at its best when it veers off into strange tangents or really doubles down on its absurdities, like a pig posing as a masseuse or a recording pigeon that acts out its messages. The character work is pretty minimal and relies upon a lot of stock characters, with the supporting players given one trait or less. While lacking in some areas, Early Man is still an amusing story that has its moments of goofy whimsy even amidst the sports clichés. I especially enjoyed Tom Hiddleston’s vocal performance as the ignorant, effete leader of the Bronze Age. It’s no Chicken Run or Pirates: Band of Misfits, but the gentle comic rhythms of an Aardman movie can still be refreshing.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Pirates: Band of Misfits (2012)

1776Delightful from beginning to end, Aardman’s stop-motion animated caper Pirates: Band of Misfits is hands down the best animated film of the year. Its wry British humor is mixed with inspired slapstick and a child-like sense of folly as the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) and his motley crew try to prove themselves to their pirate peers. Then they run into Charles Darwin, discover their parrot is really the last remaining dodo, and have to face off against a double sword-wielding Queen Victoria. The imagination on display is remarkable. Even the puns are funny.  The pacing is swift, with gags flying so fast you’ll likely want a second viewing to catch them. The voice acting is spot-on and Grant anchors the film with his gleeful impulsivity. The story is simple but well executed and fun. I absolutely loved this movie. Its action sequences are well orchestrated, its comedic sensibilities are silly but often satisfying (a monkey butler who speaks in pre-written cards, a member of the crew that is merely a fish with a pirate hate on), it’s self-aware without being too self-conscious, and the animation is wonderful. There’s something about stop-motion that other animations cannot replicate, a physicality to its world that can make it so rich and immersive in the right hands. Kids will miss the references to, among others, Darwin, Jane Austen, and John Merrick, but adults will appreciate the nods.  Pirates: Band of Misfits is a wildly entertaining family-friendly animated adventure that has it all.

Nate’s Grade: A

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