Handmade animation is a dying art form, but the stop-motion artisans at Aardman Animations are still carrying its tiny, intricately crafted flag. Early Man, the first movie by Aardman standard-bearer Nick Park in a decade, whisks us back to the Stone Age, when tools were primitive and the wheel was just a gleam in some visionary caveperson’s eye. But while the film is deliberately crude in some respects—Park once described his aesthetic as making sure that, no matter how carefully sculpted his clay figures were, he always left the thumbprints showing—it’s fastidiously detailed in others, dancing between broad humor and subtle, almost subliminal gags as it plays out the conflict between Neanderthals and their evolutionary successors.
Although an opening title winkingly places Early Man’s volcanic landscape somewhere near Manchester, England, the movie isn’t as obsessively steeped in Britishisms as Park’s classic Wallace and Gromit shorts. But the epochal battle between homos neanderthalensis and sapiens takes the most English form imaginable: a football match. (Calling it soccer in this context just feels wrong.) The prize is control over the valley where Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his fellow hominids make their home, gamely hunting rabbits and plotting ways to take down a wooly mammoth without suspecting that not far away, humankind has already entered the Bronze Age.
Dug’s tribe is abruptly informed of their imminent obsolescence by the arrival of Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), a supercilious dandy with a French accent as thick as hollandaise. The Bronze Agers take their football seriously, and their team is nigh-unstoppable, but the Neanderthals are the ones who invented the game, even if they’ve forgotten how to play it.
Fortunately, the Bronze Agers are misogynists as well as snobs; as far as they’re concerned, the playing field for “the beautiful game” is no place for a woman. So Goona (Maisie Williams), a fervent soccer fan, makes the counter-Darwinian choice to defect, teaching Dug and his tribe the finer points of the sport and instilling in them a team spirit that Real Bronzio’s pampered showboaters can’t possibly muster.
Park and his writers, Mark Burton and James Higginson, cobble together enough of a story to sustain Early Man at feature length, but it’s clear that character-building is not where their true interests lie. The movie isn’t a collection of sketches, the way the Monty Python and Mel Brooks movies to which it duly pays homage were. It’s more like an old shaggy-dog story embellished with glorious new flourishes, so vivid and delightful that paying too much attention to the core characters would only distract you from them. I don’t recall what happens when Dug first arrives in the Bronze citadel, but I can tell you it transpires in a market with stalls labeled “Pelts for Celts” and “Jurassic Pork.”
The climactic match is deftly executed, but no shot on goal is as engrossing as the tiny bronze spheres that make up the grains in the hourglass that keeps track of the time left in the half, which on closer examination turn out to be miniature soccer balls. (There’s even color commentary and instant replay, the latter accomplished with stick puppets and a shoebox proscenium.) The movie’s favorite trick is to make a joke so obvious you have to suppress a groan—naturally there’s one about a man who literally arrives early, and another about primordial soup—and then take it further or in a different direction than you’d ever expect. It lowers your defenses with dad jokes and then knocks you flat with its cleverness.
There’s something especially captivating about the miniaturist backgrounds in stop-motion animation. Even characters as ingratiating as Wallace and Gromit were sometimes in danger of being upstaged by their wallpaper, and Dug, who’s little more than a generic good guy, doesn’t stand much of a chance. (His pet warthog Hognob, who’s voiced, or more accurately snorted, by Park, would have made a more interesting lead.) If you’ve already devoured the Wallace and Gromit canon, as well as Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep, Early Man is a wonderful way of extending their giddy glow, even if it feels like a small step backward.