Stone Age history comes with a pinch of salt and a whole lot of plasticine in the new film from Bristol-based animation wizards Aardman. Early Man doesn’t reach the heights of the studio’s previous offerings but boasts an abundance of warmth, humour and extraordinary design.
Astonishingly, Early Man sees Nick Park, the creator of Wallace and Gromit, on solo directorial duties for the first time, following collaborations with Peter Lord and Steve Box for Chicken Run and Curse of the Were Rabbit respectively. The result, perhaps more so than ever before, is a film coated in Park’s trademark fingerprints – most definitively in puns, slapstick and toothy characters. Though computer effects pepper Early Man (enhancing backgrounds and wide vistas) it is the familiar homeliness of it all that provides the charm.
Much like with Pixar, Aardman’s reputation makes mountains out of expectations. Whereas the former’s Good Dinosaur peaked with its opening gag and dipped into a much duller affair, it is a gladdened heart that finds no such dive in Early Man. With a shared prehistoric theme, both films open with the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs. Pixar’s film sees it (ironically) miss, whilst the Aardman take – ‘near Manchester’ and at ‘about lunchtime’ – is closer to reality. Right up until grunting cavemen investigate the conveniently-shaped space debris and use it to invent the game of football, that is.
Many ‘ages’ later, we meet Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his Gnasher-like wild boar companion Hognob (oinked by Park himself) who live in the paradisal forrest that has since grown in the original asteroid’s crater with his rabbit-hunting tribe, under Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall). When Lord Nooth (a gloriously hammy Tom Hiddleston) arrives with his Bronze Age army, however, the tribe is cast out into the volcanic badlands in a set up reminiscent of the Asterix and Obelix series. Their last hope comes when plucky Dug challenges Nooth’s beloved football team, Real Bronzio, to a winner-takes-all game. Naturally, the only problem is that none of them know how to play.
Following so perfect a prologue is no mean feet for the bulk of the film and it would be fair to say the prehistorically-predictable plotting of Early Man isn’t quite up to the job. That said, it takes a special script (here by Mark Burton and James Higginson) to maintain the film’s phenomenal gag-rate. No word goes unplayed with in Early Man (‘’Seize ze valley and start mining ore!’/‘Or what?’) and no opportunity for slapstick un-mined. It’s a giggle-a-minute delight from start to finish.
The unadulterated joy of an Aardman film lies in its rewarding ability to layer jokes in such away that the film demands repeat viewing for a full appreciation. In the background are rib-ticklers and in-jokes of a quality so high that lesser animations would have placed them front and centre. As Dug, and his Bronze City ally Goona (Maisie Williams) dive from a window a poster advertising toilet roll on the wall behind them proclaims ‘Bumsoft’ to be ‘the world’s No 2 choice!’ Watch too for witty cineliterate shop names like Jurassic Pork and Flint Eastwood and Rob Brydon’s homage to a pair of retired sports commentators.
If Early Man lacks an oomph in originality, it is not for want of heart. Earnest and loveable, the film is raised by its laugh-out-loud script, spirited cast and impeccable animation.