Movie reviews: Early Man, Maze Runner: The Death Cure
To borrow a phrase from Evelyn Waugh, criticising an Aardman animation feels a bit like taking a spade to a soufflé. Everyone loves those wobbling, bug-eyed, painstakingly animated play-dough characters, with their 1950s British sensibilities and flair for elaborate slapstick. Since making their mark with Wallace and Gromit in the 1990s, Nick Park and his team have graduated seamlessly from TV to movies, scoring solid hits with the likes of Chicken Run and Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists!
At their best, Park's stop-motion animations are things of beauty, lovingly crafted exercises in nostalgic silliness. But for me, despite numerous winning moments, Early Man feels a bit like Aardman treading water. It all begins brightly enough, with a precis that shows a bracing contempt for the finer points of history.
Ancient Britons, we are told, were knocking around when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and accidentally invented football while escaping from the comet that wiped the giant lizards out.
Many generations later, when sophisticated Bronze Age continentals invade, the locals have all but forgotten the ancient game, but after Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe are driven out of their village, footie becomes essential to their survival.
Their home valley has been earmarked for a diamond mine and the Britons are hopelessly outnumbered, but when Dug discovers that the foreigners worship their all-star football team, he decides to challenge them to a winner-takes-all match.
Dug and his fellow tribesmen are rubbish, but train hard and work on the very British assumption that a unified team might just beat a talented but hopelessly smug collection of preening individuals.
Early Man gleefully trots out the time-honoured British tabloid prejudices about oily continentals, who don't play fair and dive like salmon to win dodgy penalties. But the film does so with its tongue in its cheek to avoid seeming like a cheerleader for Brexit. The match itself is great fun, and a fine voice cast includes Timothy Spall, Tom Hiddleston and Maisie Williams. But Early Man sags a little in the middle, and isn't quite as funny as it needs to be.
Early Man (PG, 89mins)
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One of a clutch of imitators that emerged in the wake of The Hunger Games, Maze Runner conjured up another bunch of plucky kids cast adrift in a dystopian nightmare. Based on the young adult novels of James Dashner, the original 2014 film starred Dylan O'Brien as Thomas, a teenage boy who wakes in a glade enclosed by huge stone walls with no idea how he got there. He soon found out that he and the other teenagers in the enclosure were guinea pigs in a scientific trial.
The Earth has succumbed to a devastated pandemic unleashed by a solar flare: the teens in the glade are immune to it and may provide a usable inoculation. In Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2016), Thomas and friends escaped from the grip of the sinister organisation WCKD and discovered a devastated landscape overrun by slavering zombies. And in this concluding episode, The Death Cure, they're about to leave the American mainland by boat when an ill-advised rescue mission leads to a spectacular final confrontation with the crypto-fascist rulers.
The Death Cure has no shortage of capable actors, from Barry Pepper and Aidan Gillen to Patricia Clarkson and Walton Goggins. What they're doing in this tedious and portentous production, however, is anybody's guess, because while the first two films were nothing special, they seem spectacularly competent compared to this. Clocking in at a staggering 142 minutes, The Death Cure makes the massive mistake of taking itself too seriously, and makes a total meal of concluding a tired and derivative story. I did enjoy Gillen's pantomime villain flourishes, however.
Maze Runner: The Death Cure (12A, 142mins)