The Stone Age began - around lunchtime, near Manchester - in the Neo-Pleistocene Period. A small meteorite hit the surface of the earth and fashioned itself, through the gouge marks left by the atmosphere, into the perfect shape for playing football (or, in American parlance, soccer), and a sport was born. This is the amusing premise of the strong, decidedly funny start to Early Man, the latest stop-motion-animated effort from Aardman. Enough both has been and cannot be said for the meticulous, handmade nature of these productions, in which teams of animators manipulate each movement of each character in each frame.
Sometimes, when paired with the onscreen happenings of the series of events that, strung together, make up some sort of narrative, this is enough. With Early Man, it is only enough for about half an hour of its hour and a half. Dug (voice of Eddie Redmayne) lives as a caveman in the mountains under the shadow of an active volcano. As direct descendants of those early footballers, he and his tribe have evolved enough to hunt rabbits in the wild, but the thought of hunting anything bigger is too great for Chief Bobnar (voice of Timothy Spall) even to consider. This is the way things are, and progressive thinking is not the caveman way in his mind.
Eventually, the time must come to act. Lord Nooth (the amusingly French-accented voice of Tom Hiddleston), whose constituents have flourished in the early stages of the Bronze Age, has arrived to claim the cavemen's valley to mine for bronze found deep within the rock of the mountains. The central conflict arises when Dug accidentally finds himself in Nooth's grand city and accidentally playing football ("the sacred game") on their field in the place of the goalie. Nooth requests a challenge, and Dug accepts on a condition: If he and his mates win, they keep their valley. Requesting help from Goona (voice of Maisie Williams), a pots-and-pans saleswoman in town who is particularly skilled in footballing, the match is on.
Director Nick Park (who also provides the grunts and sniffs of Dug's oddly adorable pig Hognob) and screenwriters Mark Burton and James Higginson have unintentionally found a divide between the halves of their movie. The first half features likable characters going through the goofy motions of surviving the transition between the Stone and Bronze ages, including some clever gags involving a giant, man-eating mallard (which looks smaller given some distance) and a member of the tribe that is literally just a giant rock (but no less loved by all the people in the group for being a giant rock). This section is sometimes very funny and almost completely conflict-free (minus, you know, the giant, man-eating mallard).
The second half of the screenplay bogs down in the sports comedy of the central conflict to such a degree that the characters are left behind in the aftermath of that shift. Suddenly, stakes are established as Nooth provides a bit of generic villainy, and the laughs are just as suddenly a lot sparser (Its height of comedy is a too-lengthy gag involving a misunderstanding that leads Hognob, the pig, to give Nooth a massage and to play him a bit of the harp). So, yes, the years of team effort spent to build this impressive vision of an era from long ago is formidable. That effort is misplaced, though, in the case of Early Man, a slight and inconsequential affair that doesn't warrant such special treatment.
Featuring the voices of Eddie Redmayne (Dug), Tom Hiddleston (Lord Nooth), Maisie Williams (Goona), Timothy Spall (Chief Bobnar), Richard Ayoade (Treebor), Mark Williams (Barry), Rob Brydon (Brian/Bryan/Message Bird), Miriam Margolyes (Queen Oofeefa), Selina Griffiths (Magma), Simon Greenall (Eemak/Thongo), Gina Yashere (Gravelle), Richard Webber (Grubup), Luke Walton (Huggelgrabber), and Nick Park (Hognob).
Directed by Nick Park and written by Mark Burton and James Higginson.
Rated PG (rude humor, action).
Released on February 16, 2018.