The similarity between the words Pleistocene, the geological epoch during which modern humans evolved, and Plasticine, the malleable putty patented in 1899 and still used by children today, must have felt like a gift to the creative adults at Aardman Animations when the germ of an idea by Nick Park evolved into the company’s seventh feature film.
Directing Early Man himself – having previously co-directed Chicken Run with Peter Lord, and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit with Steve Box – Park has huge fun with what appears to be his passion project. By scrolling back even further than the postwar uplands of Wallace and Gromit, he and his animators find much to play with at a time before even analogue technology existed.
In a similar one-man-and-his-animal-companion formation to Wallace and Gromit, Early Man revolves around optimistic cave-boy Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his boar Hognob (Park, channelling Scooby Doo). In both cases, the human does all the talking, but the four-legged friend steals every scene he’s in.
Under Timothy Spall’s weary elder, Dug’s tribe are brought to life by a winning hand of British comedians, from Richard Ayoade and Mark Williams to Johnny Vegas and Gina Yashere. Meanwhile, continental Bronze Age invaders – who claim our heroes’ terrain and banish them to a Potterville-type badlands – are led by camp villain Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston in full ’Allo ’Allo! mode).
Upbeat, visually inventive, and tightly focused, Early Man does not hang about. The meteor crash-lands, the Stone Age arrives, early humans live the sort of sustainable existence that would appeal to the hippy-ish Aardman board (even a rabbit caught by the tribe seems to want to be eaten for dinner), and the villains turn up right on cue.
The added ingredient to the film’s Flintstones-esque technology (an electric shaver that’s actually a beetle; clothes pegs that are little crocodiles) arrives with the introduction of football. In writer Mark Burton and John O’Farrell’s imagination, cave paintings show the Stone Age folk playing the beautiful game, but badly.
Burton and Farrell provide plenty of pun-filled fun, not least in the banter of two football pundits. There’s subtle hilarity in the naming of the female protagonist Goona (a clear reference to a modern-day Arsenal fan) and a gag involving a bowl of “Primordial soup” being served. Though it’s aimed at the very young, there are a few references to “balls” that will raise a titter with the mums and dads.
When a football match is organised to settle the land dispute, Dug – along with fleet-footed, not-quite-love-interest Goona (Maisie Williams) – must train his tribe to face Real Bronzio, a crack squad of individuals whom we quickly discover lack the togetherness of the Stone Age tribe.
Never once outstaying its welcome, and spirited along with some energetic work by composers Harry Gregson-Williams and Tom Howe (not to mention a training routine set to Mud’s Tiger Feet for the grandparents), Early Man finds a place somewhere at the top of Aardman’s evolutionary tree with Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep. Although its conclusion is reliably preordained, that merely slots it into the back of the net alongside any other sports movie.
Early Man is released in cinemas on Friday 26 January
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