The 59-year-old hasn't directed a feature film since 2005's The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Oscar-winning animator Nick Park on his return to directing in 'Early Man'
Nick Park, Aardman animator extraordinaire, is reflecting back on what set him on the path for his latest stop-motion adventure, Early Man. The story of a Stone Age youngster named Dug and his tribe of not-so-bright friends, this caveman’s valentine was perfectly tailored to his tastes. “Stupid characters with heavy brows,” he laughs. “It seems to lend itself to the kind of animation I love doing.”
A softly-spoken 59-year-old from Preston in the north of England, Park hasn’t directed a feature since 2005’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, his first full-length movie featuring the beloved Wallace and his canine companion Gromit, who began life in a series of shorts. Between them and his Creature Comforts, Park’s first major project for the Bristol-based Aardman Animations, he has won four Oscars.
After a long hiatus he has welcomed his return to directing, with new characters to play with. “If you’ve got characters already established, you’ve already hit the ground running,” he says. “Whereas it’s been a real job to…have a story in which you introduce brand new characters and make them compelling from the beginning. That’s quite a challenge on the writing side.”
Still, it’s not hard to see a little of Wallace and Gromit in Dug (voiced by British star Eddie Redmayne) and his pet warthog Hognob (Park). “It seems to have defaulted that way,” says Park. “I suppose one is going to make the comparisons, but Dug is a different character. There is a similar relationship, though. I feel that Hognob is more of an animal than Gromit, but he does show intelligence, and he’s ahead of Dug at times.”
With Park calling Dug “a can-do caveman”, the story sees the Stone Age tribe facing eviction from their land by the incoming Bronze Age mob – led by the avaricious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, with a super-thick French accent). As Park was sketching out ideas, he began to think of these rivals like opposing football teams. “I thought, ‘What if you take these very physical cavemen and told them they can’t fight, but can play sport?’ Then I started riffing ideas on how football is so tribal.”
According to Early Man, Dug’s Neanderthal ancestors were the ones who invented the beautiful game, which leads him to challenge Lord Nooth’s team of preening prima donnas, Real Bronzio. If they win, they get to keep their land. “I’ve done a lot of research and watched a lot of football in the last five years,” says Park, who promises the film is full of references for eagle-eyed viewers. “There were so many football fans working on the film.”
With its themes of isolationism and the villain speaking with a silly French accent, some early reviews have suggested Early Man is a Brexit movie. Park is cautious about his film getting caught up in the debate around the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. “I was very aware with Brexit, I didn’t want any anti-European feeling. I didn’t want it to carry any nationalistic flag with the movie. We wrote it before Brexit, so we were a bit worried…we tried Lord Nooth with an English accent, but it sounded too typical.”
Nevertheless, Aardman films – particularly Park’s work, like The Great Escape-inspired Chicken Run (2000) – are quintessentially British. “I’d been brought up on Ealing comedies and The Beano [comic] and all those things, that is in my blood,” says Park. “When we have stuff shown in America, they always say, ‘Oh it’s so British!’ I don’t always know what that is that makes it so. But I’m glad to be part of that stable and seen like that. It’s not a conscious effort in a way.”
Yet, according to Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams, who voices Goona, the football-mad girl who helps Dug, Early Man is also unfailingly modern in its portrayal of female characters. Goona looks “incredibly appealing without being overly-pretty,” she says. Compare that to the “hyper-sexualised” representations of young girls with big eyes and perfect lips that dominate most cartoons. “I just don’t think that’s a healthy image to be forcing upon kids. It’s unachievable. What I like about Goona, she’s just a real girl.”
When it came to the cast, Park has assembled one of the starriest yet for an Aardman film. Redmayne is an Oscar-winner from The Theory of Everything, while Hiddleston won a Golden Globe for The Night Manager. Yet neither of these projects swayed Park. He saw Redmayne in the obscure medieval film Black Death where he played a novice monk. “I liked the rough edges that he bought along and the vulnerability.” Even more strangely, he saw Hiddleston on a British chat show “doing Robert De Niro impressions”. It was enough to hire him.
The film is also a huge nod to Park’s own hero, Ray Harryhausen, the stop-motion genius who brought his skills to such live-action/animation combos as Jason and the Argonauts and One Million Years B.C. “The very opening of the film is a reference to Ray Harryhausen,” Park explains. “We have two dinosaurs fighting. One called Ray and one called Harry.” Animating clay models frame by frame, you might say Park and his predecessor are the “early men” these days, compared to the computer-generated cartoons by Pixar and other Hollywood giants.
“We are still using clubs, bones and arrows – using stop-frame [animation]!” says Park. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I feel like it draws us apart from the crowd. It makes us different. It works in our favour really.”
Early Man is now showing in cinemas