‘Early Man’ Review: Aardman’s prehistoric comedy scores

It’s fascinating to me that Aardman Studios never became the kind of Pixar-like giant over here that they seemed poised to be. Seriously: Wasn’t Chicken Run a gigantic hit back in 2000? It’s not even in print currently on Blu-Ray in the U.S., and they only way you can get it on Amazon is to order a German import. Their last film, the Shaun the Sheep Movie was an utterly brilliant and underseen children’s film, full of life and humor and emotion, and I personally thought it was their masterpiece, but even then it seemed to disappear pretty quickly. Their movies, when they drop in to your local cinema, feel like a gigantic surprise, and such is the same with their latest, Early Man, a deeply amusing soccer movie set in the Bronze Age that will enthrall fans of the sport and of the filmmakers alike.

Dug (Eddie Redmayne) is a caveman. He lives with his little tribe of cro-mags and his warthog best friend Hognob (Nick Park, the film’s director) in a lush and gorgeous valley, where they spend their days hunting rabbits to feed on and celebrating at night. But Dug has dreams. He wants to hunt mammoths, because hunting mammoths is a challenge and, well, there just isn’t very much meat on a rabbit now is there? But one fateful day, war mammoths descend upon the valley and send the tribe fleeing into the badlands that surround their valley, as a group of bronze-age frenchmen led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) claim the ore-rich valley for themselves to mine. By accident, Dug goes back with them to their Bronze City, and discovers a town full of modern conveniences like sliced bread and bronze tools and money, before being swept away into a peculiar religious ceremony in which two teams of men try to kick balls into nets.

Yes, these people are playing futball, and Dug decides to challenge the team in order to save his valley. He’s given a short amount of time to turn his cavemen squad into a team worthy of fielding, and in order to do this, he’ll have to team up with a talented Bronzer named Goona (Maisie Williams) who has dreams of playing the beautiful game herself. So, things unfold about as you might imagine between the Snobs (the Bronze team) and the Slobs (the cavemen), and Dug has to overcome his own insecurities as well as believe in himself in order to succeed.

It’s perfectly wonderful to watch unfold. The humor operates on two levels: Slight puns for the adults and large silly moments for the kids, but both are generally effective enough. The voice cast is all well and good: Redmayne manages to channel his awkwardness well into Dug’s naivety and make it endearing — rather than pretty much every other on-screen role that he’s had — and Williams, saddled with a slight accent and a relatively humorless role, manages to make the most of it, even if she sounds a bit bored every once in a while. The standout is easily Hiddleston, who hams it up with one of the grandest faux-French accents ever recorded, and it’s about as much fun to watch unfold on screen as it is imagining him doing the voice in the booth. Others like Timothy Spall and Rob Brydon (who has the film’s least-obvious laugh line near the end of the film, a blissfully stupid joke about “comedy gold” that killed me) do solid work here, but truthfully anybody could be doing the voices — it’s Park’s show, and he’s often demonstrated that he doesn’t need no stinkin’ words to make great cinema.

Visually, it’s about as much of a leap for Aardman as was The Pirates, which means that they don’t spare the impeccable detail in this gorgeous realization of a prehistoric world. From the volcano-covered badlands all the way to the pitch in the heart of the Bronze City, there’s a finesse and care given to the macro and the micro that you won’t find in many other animated productions outside of a Wes Anderson-directed one. There are lovely little tributes to the history of animation as well sprinkled throughout, beginning with a fun homage to Harryhausen and continuing on throughout the film. The soccer sequences themselves are impressively fluid and, most assuredly, quite difficult to capture with stop-motion, and they’re a lot of fun to see unfold. And, if we’re talking about animation and character design, Dug’s friend Hognob is probably the single cutest creation of Aardman’s over the last 20 years, so it has that going for it as well.

Is it as good as the Shaun the Sheep Movie? Probably not, since that particular film has yet to be equaled by any other animated work that I’ve seen since its debut in 2015, and this doesn’t have the pathos that did, which means it’ll only connect so well.

But Early Man is a great deal of fun, and excellent counter-programming for this crazy weekend, especially if you’ve already seen Black Panther at a Thursday night screening and want to head back out to see something light, breezy, and fun. Just be wary of throwing any rocks at ducks on your walk home: You never know if those little motherfuckers are actually giant bloodthirsty creatures that may very well eat you and the rest of your tribe. That’d be a tragedy, to be killed by a giant mallard because you aren’t smarter than a caveman.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Image via Summit Entertainment.