Directed by: Nick Park
Runtime: 89 minutes
Going into Early Man without seeing a trailer, I wasn’t sure what the title was meant to imply. The result was a pleasant surprise because the story transpires in a historically-inaccurate version of the Stone Age I wasn’t anticipating. Cavemen and their prehistoric existence is not the ideal setting for a sports movie, but in the hands of Aardman’s visually-charming stop-motion animation (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run), it makes for a funny and engaging time at the movies. While kids will get a lot out of the obvious slapstick humour, the British humour and references to English football provides a layer of appeal for older viewers.
The film opens in a red desert of volcanoes. As the titles states: “The Neo-Pleistocene Age. Near Manchester. Around lunchtime”. After a meteor wipes out all the dinosaurs, a tribe of cavemen find a chunk of the meteor so hot, they learn to kick it around. This is the Wallace & Gromit creators’ version of the origins of football. A few ages later, the deserts are now a lush, green valley, but football is forgotten. We are introduced to young caveman Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), his pet boar Hognob (the film’s writer-director Nick Park) and his rabbit-hunting tribe. Their peaceful existence is invaded by the arrival of the Bronze Army, who take over the valley for mining and banish the tribe into the wasteland. When Dug discovers that the civilisation takes pride in football, he challenges the big bad, greedy Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) to a match, where the winner will take possession of the valley. Nooth happily accepts, believing that cavemen are too inept to succeed.
Early Man is as visually stunning as the best of Aardman Animations fare. Although it never tries anything astonishing, the old-fashioned nature of claymation adds to the film’s charm. The valley landscapes are bright and colourful, the characters are intricately designed with their dreadlocks and fur clothing, and the football matches are grand to look at.
While the story is formulaic—the underdog defends his home from tycoon villains in a sports tournament and discovers his inner hero—it is a worthy successor to goofy sports comedies. There’s an affectionate quality to watching characters that are made out of clay playing soccer while uttering British-style quips. The hilarity lies in the juxtaposition of 21st century football in the Stone Age. The use of anachronisms is creative, like the prehistoric version of instant replay during football is hand puppet theatre instead of digital video. The imagination from writer-director Nick Park is a treat. The voice acting, headlined by an unrecognisable Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston (supporting performances by Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Miriam Margolyes and Rob Brydon), are top notch.
Early Man isn’t always as clever as Chicken Run or Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The second act plot device comes in the introduction of a gigantic animal that is only there to perform one specific role. The fact that they wrote such an arbitrary character for a plot point that could have been solved in a number of ways does make the film feel a little bloated.
Still, Early Man zips along with colourful character, great individual set pieces and splendidly silly humour. There’s enough slapstick and knowing satire to keep kids and adults happy for an hour-and-a-half.