Nick Park’s stop-motion clay animation made famous with Wallace & Gromit seems prehistoric in a digital age. That makes it perfectly suited for Early Man, a throwback in both story and Aardman Studios style.
Early Man is Park’s first feature since winning an Oscar for 2005’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit yet sculpted in a hands-on fashion that would have fit the very next year. Park since succumbed to digital animation’s efficiency, used mainly in the background. Early Man proudly retains Park’s simple/not simple Plasticine pleasures.
Early Man also keeps its punny British sense of humor in sight gags and jokes occasionally lost in transatlantic translation. This is a comedy about soccer but for 90 minutes doesn’t call it that. Park concocts an irreverently sacred origin of football, the World Cup type, stretching back to when dinosaurs (briefly) roamed the Earth.
A meteor strike ends that, leaving a crater and a round fragment so hot that nobody can touch it, so they curiously kick it around. A Stonehenge target is built, a cave wall artist captures the action. Soccer, I mean football, is born.
Jump ahead to the last remnants of the Stone Age, a kindly tribe of rabbit hunters living in that crater, now a lush valley surrounded by wastelands. Our hero is Dug, eagerly voiced by Eddie Redmayne. Dug is a forward thinker, urging the Chief (Timothy Spall) to hunt mammoths instead.
Their idyll is interrupted by Bronze Age intruders led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston with a silly French accent), mining the valley for its minerals. Dug is swept up and taken to Nooth’s kingdom, immediately thrust into a packed stadium and a "sacred game" he doesn’t understand then spiritually does. He challenges Nooth’s Real Bronzio team to a match, winner take all the valley.
Early Man settles into underdog comedy mode with Dug and his trusty boar Hognob (Park) molding a team from unibrowed misfits dubbed the Brutes. An outsider named Goona (Maisie Williams) joins, a great player Nooth wouldn’t allow on the team since she’s a girl. It’s fairly easy to guess where this is heading — well, the giant duck is a bit surprising — and mildly fun getting there.
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