There’s a charming metaphor at the center of Early Man, the latest feature from director Nick Park and the Aardman team. The British studio behind Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and more has long been a standard-bearer for old-fashioned stop-motion animation in the face of the CGI wave, and here they focus on a small band of “primitive” cavemen attempting to hold their own against a much bigger and more advanced tribe of Bronze Age foes.
You don’t have to have grown up on Ray Harryhausen adventures (as this writer did) to appreciate the painstaking care that goes into an Aardman movie, as they manipulate their models a frame at a time to give them goofy, idiosyncratic life. Early Man is their most visually ambitious feature yet, with big, lavish sets and resplendent color schemes, and the many little details are finely wrought as well. The story going on amidst these backdrops, on the other hand, isn’t as fully thought out and creative as is the company’s norm, and the humor elicits chuckles rather than big laughs. Yet as with Pixar, even second-level Aardman has more than enough personality and offbeat appeal to be well worth a look.
Set, as the traditionally cheeky opening titles inform us, “near Manchester,” Early Man begins with an interpretation of extinction theory that incorporates the invention of football (i.e., soccer). “A few ages later,” a gaggle of Stone Agers living in a lush but isolated valley have lost their ties to the sport and are content to hunt rabbits instead of bigger, more challenging prey (though the bunny we see them target gives them no end of mischievous trouble). One of their number, Dug (Eddie Redmayne), desires to stalk mammoths and other, larger food sources, while benevolent Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) prefers to stick to the old, traditional ways.
Their verdant paradise is threatened by the arrival of the Bronze Agers, who ride in on armored mammoths and are led by the French-accented Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), who wants to strip-mine the cavemen’s home. Upon discovering that these more advanced people are rabid for football matches played in a huge stadium, Dug makes a deal with Nooth: If he and his friends can beat the “Real Bronzio” team in a match, they’ll be allowed to stay in their valley undisturbed. The Stone Agers, of course, will need all the help they can get, and they find it in Goona (Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams), a Bronze Age girl with a passion for the game that she’s disallowed from taking part in because of her gender.
You wouldn’t be wrong to think that this sounds like typical inspirational-underdog-sports-movie-formula stuff. Early Man is bound to narrative convention in ways Aardman’s previous productions (which tweaked the standards of the genres they employed) were not, and the storyline could have used more anarchic digressions. As always, however, there’s plenty of fun and wit to be had in the individual scenes and off in the margins. While the subject is very British (American parents are going to have to explain the “football” thing to their kids), as is some of the humor, with in-jokes that likely play better in the UK than they will for audiences across the pond, Mark Burton and James Higginson’s script also indulges in the country’s great tradition of silly wordplay and punnery. “Start mining ore!” Nooth commands, and the reply comes, “Or what?” My favorite gag, which I won’t spoil here, derives from Nooth’s simple order to “Take them away and kill them slowly.”
Park, directing a feature solo for the first time, oversees plenty of creative visual lunacy as well, particularly a sight gag involving a duck that’s more than it first appears. The voice cast all throw themselves into their roles with great enthusiasm, and as in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which cast Serious British Thespian Ralph Fiennes as the ridiculous villain to great comic effect, Hiddleston is an inspired choice here; just the fact that it’s he of the honeyed English accent behind Nooth’s outrageous Gallic intonations is part of the joke. Early Man’s plot may date back to cinema’s prehistory, but little viewers who haven’t seen it before won’t mind, and it will keep anyone with an appreciation for loving craftsmanship and committed tomfoolery smiling throughout.