FILM REVIEW – EARLY MAN. With the voices of Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade. Written by Mark Burton and James Higginson. Directed by Nick Park. Rated PG for rude humor and some action. 89 minutes.
There’s no question that Nick Park and his team at Aardman Animation are seriously daffy. It’s mad enough to do stop motion animation with clay models in this age of CGI, but it’s the stories they choose to tell that puts them over the edge. These are the people who have brought us “Wallace and Gromit,” “Chicken Run” and “Shaun the Sheep,” in which the stories spin wildly – and hilariously – out of control, at least for the characters. For the people making the films, they know exactly what they’re doing.
EARLY MAN begins with a meteorite crashing into prehistoric Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs and, not-so-incidentally, allowing cavemen to invent soccer. This being a British production, it is referred to (as it is through most of the world) as “football.” Time passes, and we are introduced to Dug (voice of Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe, who live a happy and simple life in their valley. Then, suddenly, they must flee for their lives.
It seems the Bronze Age has arisen next door, and Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) has invaded the valley to be able to plunder its resources. Dug attempts to fight back and discovers that while Nooth is amassing riches, the people of the Bronze Age are marveling over amazing inventions like sliced bread and going to cheer their champion soccer team. Indeed, soccer is something of their religion.
All of this is a set-up for that most conventional of sports stories: the underdogs who have to win the big game. Dug challenges Nooth and his champions, demanding their valley back if he wins. Of course, if they lose they will be condemned to slaving in Nooth’s mines. While we’re pretty sure how this story is going to turn out, it’s an excuse for jokes ranging from slapstick pratfalls to the color commentators of the big game who keep pointing to the awful puns they’re making.
As with the best of this kind of animation, it plays to a lot of different audiences. Adults will appreciate the surprising turns in the dialogue, as when a character is chastised for not finishing his “primordial soup,” while kids will find it hilarious when a gigantic prehistoric duck relieves itself on Lord Nooth. Let’s not overlook Hognob, a boar whose grunts are provided by director Park, and who proves much more adept at navigating the “modern” Bronze Age city than Dug and company. Fortunately, Goona (Maisie Williams), a local who dreams of being allowed to play soccer, throws in her lot with the cavemen.
“Early Man” owes more to interest in World Cup soccer coming up this summer than to real pre-history or even cartoon pre-history like “The Flintstones.” This is sure-fire family entertainment during school vacation week. Indeed, it’s for Aardman fans of all ages.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.