The stop-motion geniuses at Aardman Animation are the kings of the underdog. They’ve given us stories of chickens rebelling against farm owners, a sheep who takes charge and leads the flock to safety and hapless adventurer Wallace. In their latest, “Early Man,” there’s a Bronze Age twist to the small fry tale.
A prologue informs us that humans survived the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs. (Remember, this is all humour, not history.) What good could come out of that life-changing catastrophe? The invention of football. Using stones for goalposts, the prehistoric humans starting kicking the meteorite around to create the game that would become the world’s most popular sport.
Cut to a few ages later, near Manchester, around lunchtime. A Stone Age clan, including a spunky caveman named Dug (voice of Eddie Redmayne) and his sidekick Hognob (Nick Park), find themselves rocked by a new era. Bronze Age villain Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston with an exaggerated French accent) has plans to invade Dug and Co.’s comfortable life, seizing their land to turn it into a mine. “The age of stone is over!” he says. “Long live the age of bronze!” It’s up to Dug and his people to protect the interest of the tribe against the more sophisticated enemy, but how? By challenging Nooth’s best football team, Real Bronzio, to a match, that’s how.
“Early Man” is a romp about football, survival and teamwork. It also features some of the best (read worst) Premier League puns. “They’re playing well, early man… United,” usually delivered by characters speak English and crack wise like British music hall comedians. It’s silly stuff, part Flintstones, part kiddie “Quest for Fire,” and while it does contain quite a few laughs it doesn’t have the same anarchic spirit of earlier Aardman films. It’s entertaining, good-natured and I think kids will like it—especially the T-Rex sized duck who is both a menace and a help to the Brutes—but it feels like middleweight Aardman.