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'Early Man' review: 'Gromit' creator returns to animation

Los Angeles Times

Surrounded by body parts in a former aluminum warehouse on the outskirts of Bristol, in the southwest of England, Nigel Leach enthusiastically hands me an arm. "Feel that," he says, as I gingerly pinch the disembodied limb.

Rather than a grisly crime scene, I'm on a tour of the puppet-making department at Academy Award-winning Aardman Studios. The tiny, finger-sized bicep in my hands, which is made entirely of silicon, belongs to one of the characters from "Early Man," the latest animated stop-motion feature from "Wallace and Gromit" creator Nick Park.

"Nick likes the thumby texture," explains Leach, a team leader in the puppet-making department, gesturing to the silicon, which looks like clay and hides a wire armature underneath. "It means that the animator can move the arm and not have to sculpt every single stage in the plasticine."

"Early Man" is Park's first directorial feature since 2005's "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and a wholly original concept. He describes it as a "prehistoric underdog sports movie" centered on a caveman, Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), as he leads his tribe into battle against the impending Bronze Age through soccer.

The plot required numerous stadium scenes featuring at least 22 characters on the pitch and thousands more in the bleachers, not to mention the technical challenges posed by trying to shoot a ball flying through midair, one painstaking frame at a time. "I've often thought to myself, 'Why? Why have I chosen this subject?'" Park chuckles. "Maybe golf would have been a better choice. Or ice-skating."

"There's no single shot in the film that's easy," admits animation director Will Becher as he guides me around one of the studio's 46 units, each housing a detailed miniature film set. "You'll look at the (story) boards and think, 'That's going to be really quick,' but quite often the small, close-up ones just take forever."

Redmayne, who has worked on large-scale productions including "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" and "Les Miserables," said the Bronze Age set "blew me away" when he visited the studio last year. "It was so vast and yet on such a tiny scale," he recalls via telephone call from London. "The intricacy of the model making — you could get lost in it."

While Dug, with his large hands, shaggy hair and fur tunic certainly looks the part of a caveman, he has more than a hint of Wallace about him too. "It's very much from Nick's design sensibilities," agrees animation director Merlin Crossingham. "Classic eyes, big teeth and kind of a nice chunky, solid feel to it. It's something that has sort of becoming the Aardman house (style), but really it's Nick's design style."

Park has a precise vision and likes to act out every character's lines in the studio's live-action video unit for his animators to use as a guide. He is equally fastidious about their voices, which, in "Early Man," are provided by a cast including Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and "Game of Thrones" fan favorite Maisie Williams.

As the voice of Goona, a gifted soccer player who triumphs over gender discrimination, Williams hopes the film inspires a new generation of girls. "I think it's wonderful to see a woman prevailing in what seems to be a male-dominated world," she says of Goona. Williams, who recently announced she was starting her own production company, has plenty of experience when it comes to prevailing in a male-dominated industry. "I think we're so influenced as kids by what we see that it's important to bring these pretty serious issues to light, even in kids' films."

Karen Yossman is a freelance writer.

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