There’s a fitting, goofy grace to Early Man being rendered in old-school plasticine stop-motion animation: a tale about man’s earliest ancestors, told in a form so ancient you can occasionally see, like little fossils, the imprints of the animators’ thumbs on the characters.
That kind of elbow-grease animation is the stock and trade of Aardman Animations and its star, Nick Park, who invented the cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his long-suffering sidekick Gromit in the late 1980s. The pair are the stars of many shorts, and Park went on to spin off a series featuring their spiritual cousin, the silent and impish Shaun the Sheep.
Park has co-directed two Aardman feature-length films (Chicken Run in 2000 and Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005), but Early Man is his first solo foray into feature directing. And it’s a charmer, a tale about a caveman named Dug who sets out to save his home valley from a hostile invading force by defeating them in … a rousing game of football. (How very English.)
A quintessentially Aardman-esque stew of slapstick, homage, and wordplay so wry it barely (but always) misses being groan-worthy, Early Man is a gentle and modest reflection on how we have, from the very beginning, always needed to treat one another with kindness in order to survive.
Early Man feels fresh, even though it’s about the dawn of time
Early Man aims to transport audiences back to the dawn of humanity, a feat it accomplishes not just by following a tribe of cave people but also by aping a kind of flickery film stock you don’t see much these days. Coupled with an animation style that couldn’t be more different from the bouncy, eye-popping CGI we’re used to seeing in most big-screen fare, Early Man has the feeling of being handmade — linked less tightly to flashy cartoons and more to the stories we told when we were kids, acted out with Play-Doh.
But as with Chicken Run — an homage to the classic film The Great Escape, among other things — the joy of Early Man isn’t in observing some kind of realistic character portrayal. Chicken Run’s chickens do act in noticeably chicken-like ways (which is why it was a family favorite when I was a teenager — those chickens acted like the ones living in our backyard). But they’re anthropomorphized, each with distinct personalities, a band of weirdos led by a leader (in Chicken Run’s case, an American rooster who crash-lands in the yard) who isn’t so sure he’s got what it takes to save the flock from their eventual fates as meat pies.
Similarly, Early Man isn’t a character study of the “Neo-Pleistocene”-era man, nor is it an anthropologically accurate portrayal of Bronze Age man. The cavemen and women, like the chickens, are a motley band of caricatures modeled on various sorts of people you might find today outside of Manchester (where we’re told the movie’s tribe lives). The fun of Early Man is seeing all of these characters bounce up against one another, sometimes quite literally — like Wallace and his ilk, they’re bug-eyed and gap-toothed, roly-poly and often pretty dense, but they mean well.
Led by aging Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall), this genial tribe of cave folk live an idyllic life in their valley, mostly hunting rabbits together. Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his sidekick, a doglike boar named Hognob (whose grunts are provided by Nick Park himself), wishes they could hunt bigger game, but rabbits are what they’ve always hunted, and rabbits they’ll hunt forever, if the chief has his way about things.
But one day, their peaceful stone-and-fire-based way of living is shattered by the arrival of the Bronze Age, in the form of Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, affecting a French-ish accent that sounds straight out of Monty Python) and his clan. Nooth is obsessed with bronze, which his people have harnessed for hundreds of purposes. He also rather likes the valley the cavemen are living in, and before the tribe can do much about it, the Bronze Age men have taken over their ancestral home for mining and smelting.
Through a series of capers better seen than described, Dug winds up in an arena surrounded by thousands of rabid Bronze Agers — quite terrifying, until he realizes they’re there to watch two teams play football (or soccer, if you must). The game is new and fascinating to him, though it feels like it rings a bell somewhere in the recesses of his memory. But what he wants most is for his tribe to get their home back.
So Dug and Nooth strike a deal: They’ll play each other, “Real Bronzio” vs. “The Brutes,” in a high-stakes football game. If the cave people win, they get their valley back. If they lose, they must work in the mines. The hitch, of course, is that while Real Bronzio has a team full of coiffed stars who’ve trained to play the “beautiful game” for years, the cave people are stymied by the concept of a ball.
So Dug has his work cut out for him. Luckily, he has the help of Goona (Maisie Williams), a Bronze Ager who’s annoyed that she can’t play on Real Bronzio because she’s a girl. But will the tribe even figure out how to kick the ball in the right direction on time? The answer will surprise everyone — including the foppish, loutish Nooth.
The fun of Early Man comes from the many levels on which its humor works
It’s the sheer silliness of the proposition — two fairly primitive civilizations playing each other in what is recognizably a Premier League game of football — that makes Early Man hum along. It gives space for wry commentary on the primal behavior of football fans and ample opportunity to poke fun at announcers’ sublimely dumb jokes. (And don’t worry, they make fun of footballers’ dramatic fake injuries too.)
But you don’t have to be a pro football fan to get the jokes — pretty much everyone has kicked the ball around at one time or another — and it’s the rich tapestry of humor happening all around the characters that makes the film truly delightful, as well as rewatchable. The jokes come fast and thick and hit on every level, from relatively complicated syntactical gags to humorous takes on Bronze Age technology to signs in the town for establishments like “Pelts for Celts” and “Jurassic Pork.” There’s a gloriously drawn-out scene of mistaken identity that involves a boar giving Nooth a massage in the bath. There’s a giant mallard duck. I defy you to sit stone-faced, no matter your age.
And as with Chicken Run, which mixed classic film references to a degree that can only be deciphered by someone with a deep background in film history, Early Man pulls from inspirations ranging from sports movies to Monty Python sketches to tell its story, which is, in the end, quite a simple one. The point of it all is that sometimes we need to coexist with our neighbors, that conquering isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that being brave and polite goes a long way toward making the world a livable place.
You can read that any number of ways in 2018, of course. But it’s not like it hasn’t always been true. That’s long been a theme of good-hearted movies for all ages, and what Early Man posits is simple: It’s actually what’s made us human, all the way back to the dawn of time.
Early Man opens in theaters on February 16.
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