We begin with an affectionately cheeky tribute to the much-loved Hollywood stop-motion master, Ray Harryhausen, à la prehistoric creature feature, 1 Million Years BC (stop looking for Raquel Welsh in a fur bikini – this isn’t that kind of film). Earth; the Neo-Pleistocene-era (get it?); somewhere near Manchester; around about Lunchtime: a meteor strikes the primeval landscape, annihilates a pair of fighting dinosaurs (so long Ray & Harry, we hardly knew ye) and gouges out an enormous crater. Inside, a nearby tribe of cavemen discover a round fragment that looks suspiciously familiar. They make the further discovery that it’s rather a lot of fun to kick about. Thus “the beautiful game” is born! Centuries later however, the empty crater is now a verdant valley, the tribe inhabiting it spending their days happily hunting rabbits, their glorious footballing past relegated to cave paintings whose significance has long been forgotten. And so, the scene is set for Early Man, the latest feature film from Bristol-based animation studio and much-loved British stop-motion powerhouse, Aardman Animations, and the first to be directed by Nick Park (the soften spoken genius behind Wallace & Gromit) since 2005’s Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
Instead of one man and his preternaturally intelligent dog, our heroes for this story are one caveman, Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), and his preternaturally intelligent pig, Hobnob (who, despite being porcine, is more puppy-like than a puppy, and voiced – or rather, grunted – by Park himself). Dug is the eternal optimist, convinced his tribe (given life by some of the cream of British comedy and character acting) can accomplish anything if they just give it ago, starting by hunting something a bit bigger than rabbits, though Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) isn’t so sure. But their idyll is shattered by the arrival of an invading bronze age tribe, led by the avaricious Lord Nooth (an unrecognisable Tom Hiddleston, with a hilariously awful comedy French accent so broad even Officer Crabtree would declare it a bit much), who wants to mine their valley for bronze ore, and exiling them to the surrounding “Badlands”. But then Dug discovers that these Bronze-agers venerate football almost as much as they do the precious metal and sees a way for the tribe to try and win back their home. But it’ll take the help of new friend Goona (street vendor and precociously talented footballer, voiced by Maisie Williams) if they’re to really stand a chance.
So, before we go any further, let’s address the woolly mammoth in the room. Is Early Man, with its ‘natives fighting to take back their home from foreign invaders’ (whose colours happen to be blue and yellow), as some have posited, a Brexit film? Short answer: no.
Slightly longer answer: there are some elements that are coincidental for no reason other than timing, over which Aardman had nothing to do with and no control over (the film has been in development for over two years, and an “untitled Nick Park project” was mentioned as far back as 2007). Yes, the tribe are a plucky band of natives trying to take back control of their home, but needless isolation has made them backwards, and later discover that glorious origin stories are often just that – stories. Yes, the Bronze Agers are ruthless and capitalistic (often to the point of arrogance) but they are also cultured and sophisticated. And it’s only by learning to work together that the two sides can come to any sort of accord. This isn’t a Brexit film. This is an ‘underdogs rise to the top through teamwork’ film (or a ‘wish-fulfilment for England fans’ film).
But the most important question to ask, and what we really expect from an Aardman production, is: is it fun? My god, yes it is! (The minute you see a cockroach put on a pair of shades to protect itself from the light from the meteor crash, you know you’re in for a good time.) There are Aardman’s usual gorgeous stop-motion visuals (only delving into digital when wide-angle shots with massive crowds were involved, understandably), combined with their meticulous attention to detail and very distinctive British sense of humour, involving everything from wordplay to slapstick and visual puns to sight gags (too numerous to mention here – though two of my favourites include an advert for toilet roll: “Bumsoft, the world’s no.2 choice”, and Dug scaling the gate of the Bronze city, only for Hognob to get in easily through the cat flap – suffice it to say, you could easily watch it a second and third time just to look for the background gags you missed). The animal characters in particular frequently steal the scene; as well as Hognob, there is a mischievous rabbit that makes repeated appearances and a giant man-eating mallard (don’t question, just go with it).
You might find yourself of the opinion that Early Man doesn’t quite reach the highs of Chicken Run or Were-Rabbit, but even if you do, it’s still a solid film that doesn’t sacrifice good characters or storytelling for style and will ensure you leave the cinema with a smile on your face. It’s even one you don’t have to like or know anything about football (and trust me, I don’t), or bribe a child to see it with you to enjoy. Definitely no own goal!