Aardman Animations star Nick Park, the brilliant mind behind the adventures of “Wallace and Gromit,” tries to outdo the Flintstones in his latest comedy, “Early Man.” The film — set at the exact moment the Stone and Bronze Ages collide — milks humor out of primordial playfulness and primitive puns. On that level it scores big, but the film slightly misses the goal when it comes to the kind of humanity Park has presented over the years through “Wallace and Gromit” offerings.
It’s only a minor miss, leaving the movie overall one of the most delightful tales of men in animal pelts in recent film and TV history.
It all starts a few minutes after the dawn of time, when a handful of cave people have found a sanctuary in a lush valley surrounded by a no man’s land where giant killer ducks roam. They live a simple life of sleeping, hunting rabbits and sleeping some more. The only member of their group who shows any initiative is Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), who wants the cavemen and cavewomen to think in bigger terms.
That plan is put on hold when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) sends his more civilized followers into the valley to start mining the bronze Nooth has used to become fabulously rich. Nooth’s world is so advanced they have metal weapons, wheels and soccer (it’s actually known as football by the Bronze Age denizens, but calling the sport that would create all sorts of confusion).
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The only way Dug and his beastly sidekick Hognob can save the valley is for his group to defeat Nooth’s super talented team in a winner-take-all soccer match. The only hitch in the plan is while early, early, early, early man played a form of soccer, the latest generation wouldn’t know a goal from a gull. Their only hope comes in the form of Goona (Maisie Williams), a young girl from Nooth’s world who has been denied the right to show off her sports skills because of gender bias.
Much of the humor in the script by Mark Burton and James Higginson (based on a story by Park) relies heavily on anachronisms for comedy. Playing a game of soccer between early man and not-quite-as-early man is the biggest bit of twisting of history, but it continues from the use of a weird bug as an electric razor to giant black-and-white bugs worn as if they were soccer shoes.
Despite the fact this historical twisting writing has been used in “The Flintstones,” there’s still something entertaining about seeing how the modern world is played out in the primitive world. It helps that Hiddleston does such a clever job of giving vocal life to Nooth that everything around him seems just a bit funnier.
The film automatically generates smiles through the distinct style Park uses to fashion his stop-animation characters. There’s something both instantly endearing and quickly silly about the exaggerated facial features and body shapes of the characters. His style is as unique as any great artist who can be identified with only a few brushstrokes.
The style not only fits the flights of fancy his films tend to take, but is the animation version of comfort food because the oddly-shaped characters spark an immediate confidence in the project. This trust the project will be good has been earned by Park since his “Creature Comforts” short in 1989.
The majority of his work has featured the pairing of the good-hearted but slightly off-center Wallace and the canine Gromit, who has been his staunch companion through the best and numerous worst times. This is the element missing from “Early Man” that keeps it from being as unforgettable as any “Wallace and Gromit” tale – the way Wallace and Gromit have been portrayed over the years as two best friends who would go to any extreme for the other. This kind of pairing is rare in films especially as the animated characters are able to show so much humanity while getting across so much humor.
Park tries to replicate that with Dug and Hognob. The pair do show a fun chemistry, and Hognob has as much human in him as Gromit has, but he and Dug never completely bond. That might happen if “Early Man” becomes a franchise, but it isn’t quite there in this first outing.
Such an observation is more of a nitpick that a complaint. Looking at “Early Man” as a whole, it combines weirdly funny comedy with a sweet story about what it means to depend on others. This all comes together so the homo sapiens of “Early Man” score plenty of jokes that are smartly dated.
Rated: PG for rude humor, some action. Voices: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams. Director: Nick Park. Running time: 89 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.