Way back in 2005, Aardman Animations announced that its next movie project with then-partner DreamWorks would be a Stone Age-set comedy, co-scripted by John Cleese, entitled Crood Awakening. When, in 2007, Aardman parted ways with DreamWorks, the latter kept the rights to the idea as part of the divorce package. Five years later, the US studio released The Croods, a computer-animated caveman tale that, in addition to making more than $580 million worldwide, scored an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film.
Yet Aardman still had ambitions of making its own prehistoric ’toon using its traditional stop-motion techniques. Thirteen years on from that initial announcement, the result is Early Man: a playful if derivative caper, full of the homespun charm and very English humour that likely contributed to the creative differences with DreamWorks.
Directed by Nick Park, Early Man begins in the Neo-Pleistocene Age (“Around lunchtime”) with the landing of a meteor that inspires Earth’s troglodyte inhabitants to spontaneously invent football. “A few ages later,” the crater where the comet hit is home to Dug (Eddie Redmayne), a cheery Neanderthal content with hunting rabbits with pet warthog Hognob and the rest of his engagingly clueless tribe. (Their numbers include a bumbling chieftain, voiced by Timothy Spall, who trims his facial hair with a beetle, and a naif called Barry, played by Mark Williams, whose best friend is a rock.)
All that goes pear-shaped when Dug’s valley is invaded by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), a rapacious Bronze Ager with designs on the minerals that lie beneath Dug’s unshod feet. Things look bleak for our heroes. Until, that is, Dug challenges Nooth to a footy match, with the valley going to the winners.
Revolving as it does around a battle for supremacy between a plucky group of Luddites and a technologically superior adversary, Early Man could almost be viewed as a metaphor for the Aardman-DreamWorks situation. This time, however, Park’s thinly plotted film – his first feature since co-directing 2005’s The Curse of The Were-Rabbit – shows the limitations of his medium as much as its strengths.
The jokes come as fast as we’ve come to expect, Park deploying everything from marketplace signage (‘Jurassic Pork’) to a pair of Match of the Day-style commentators (“That’s not cricket, Brian!”) to tickle the funny bone. But ultimately, it’s a by-the-numbers, underdog sports story that struggles to fill the brief running time.
There’s fun voice work from Maisie Williams’ rebel Goona plus Richard Ayoade, Johnny Vegas and others as Redmayne’s tribal buddies. A huge man-eating mallard, meanwhile, brings a jaunty new dimension to the exclamation “Duck!”. Hiddleston’s Python-esque, quasi-French accent, alas, quickly proves irksome, while the customary Aardman wordplay (“You haven’t eaten your primordial soup!”) feels like it’s propping up an edifice almost as unsteady as the stone goal Dug puts up for football practice
A scene in which Lord Nooth unwittingly receives a warthog massage is the kind of absurdist vignette that brings out the best in this Bristol-based powerhouse. Yet similar moments are too fleeting in a film that struggles to keep it up the full 90 minutes.