Photo | Chris Johnson/Studiocanal S.A.S. / A24
Summer vacation will surely find you watching some movies with any kids you may have on hand, so until “The Incredibles 2” comes out, there are some watchable kid flicks out there that parents can endure, and may even enjoy.
Fortunately, there’s an Aardman Animations movie that just came out to rent, and you probably missed it during its all-too-short run on the big screen.
“Early Man” is a gentle, tactile break from the gleaming and fast-paced computer animation to which we’re now accustomed. The characters, mostly cavemen and cavewomen, are rendered from clay that still bears the visible fingerprints of the artists who build and painstakingly move them. If I have a complaint about this charming adventure, perhaps I, too, suffer from a shortened attention span.
The hero of the story is Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), a caveman who is always pushing his tribe to try harder and improve themselves. Their simple lives in a verdant valley are disrupted by the progress of the Bronze Age, as a dazzling war machine lead by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) takes over the valley to mine it for ore. Soon, Dug challenges his aggressive Bronze Age neighbors to a soccer match that will determine their fate.
Charming details make for giggles throughout, from little alligators being used as clothespins to a dinner of “primordial soup,” but the veering into sports territory left me cooler than most films from director Nick Park. If you aren’t familiar with his work, let the holiday be your opportunity to check it out.
His masterpiece is the duo “Wallace and Gromit,” and their short adventures are not to be missed. Their full-length outing “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” reaches heights of energy and absurdity that “Early Man” never does. His 2005 “Chicken Run” was a droll riff on prison break films that used its chicken characters’ hilarious physicality to the most extreme degree at every opportunity. “Early Man” good by average cartoon standards, but only hints at the heights Park has shown us in the past.
“Paddington 2” was also not on the big screen for long, the unlikely victim of Harvey Weinstein’s explosive fall from grace. I just hope we don’t end up having to hear a “me, too” moment from poor dear Paddington himself. His onscreen antics include a fabulously picturesque hot air balloon ride, a beautiful retro circus, a prison dining hall transformed into an elaborate tea room stacked with confections and peopled with men in striped uniforms that have been dyed pink by a single red sock.
The human actors in both Paddington films are top-notch, from the Brown family who takes him in, to the villains and detractors they come up against. The impeccably wonderful Sally Hawkins plays the brave and generous mother of the Brown clan, and Hugh Bonneville is her kind but uptight husband.
Hugh Grant goes full camp as Phoenix Buchanan, an over the hill actor who talks to himself in the voices of well-known stage roles, such as Macbeth, Poirot and Scrooge. They all fully commit despite appearing in a children’s film, and provide warm and convincing support to the CGI center of the action, Paddington himself, crisply voice by Ben Whishaw.
In search of the perfect birthday gift for his beloved Aunt Lucy back in Peru, Paddington goes to the magnificent Gruber’s Antique Shop and opens a pop-up book of London. This gives us the loveliest and most visually imaginative sequence in a film that is full of delights: Paddington and his Aunt Lucy strolling through a papery pop-up version of London. Holding a valuable secret, the book is soon stolen and Paddington framed for the crime.
This turn of events gives him the opportunity to spread goodwill and marmalade into a penitentiary, and yet another splendid performance in the form of Brendan Gleeson as Knuckles McGinty, the prison cook with a marvelous beard and a limited palate. Every Oscar-nominated, world-class actor shows up in this touching bear film as if they were at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
This family film puts most others to shame, spoiling us with its high quality until we expect every G-rated film to have emotional depth, erudite wit, a Charlie Chaplin homage and a hot air balloon. While we suffer the indignity of some scandal in the current movie “Show Dogs” involving canine testicles, which I cannot bring myself to investigate, Grant is giving us show tunes and multiple Shakespearean roles; Hawkins, one of the finest actresses working today, gives us a master class in both acting and mixing prints; and Whishaw enlivens one of the most beloved and warm-hearted fictional beasts of all time.
“Paddington 2” shows us that just because a film has a talking animal, it doesn’t have to be an embarrassment to humanity.