A Neolithic narrative, Early Man is a film for children with the old-fashioned earnestness of all of Nick Park’s claymation films. He has skilfully turned the story of flint-wielding cavemen clashing with heavily armoured Bronze Age warriors into a tale of an epic soccer rivalry between good stout English folks and fancy puffed-up Frenchmen.
Like any other Park film, Early Man is a charming kind of kids movie with the right mix of slapstick humour and intelligent storytelling that is sure to make everyone in the audience happy. Eddie Redmayne has voiced Dug, the hero of the film who is a toothy, snout-nosed boy in a furry loincloth. He spends his days hunting rabbits with the rest of his tribe, including Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall). Dug dreams of something more, to hunt wooly mammoths rather than rabbits, but every time he brings it up, he’s told to keep his hopes planted near his feet. So when a bullying army clad in bronze armour arrives, Dug is forced to fight for his clan, and he quickly discovers that the invaders’ favourite form of combat is football.
Football in the very English sense of course! Set near ‘Manchester’, home of England’s most famous teams, you would perhaps imagine Early Man as an origin story for Manchester United, just tens of thousands of years ago.
There are plenty of caveman jokes in the film. Dug’s friends are all various levels of dim-wits and contributing to the comedy is also a boar called Hognob (voiced by Park) and a gigantic duck that rampages near their home valley. Early Man is a straightforward sports movie, down to the montages and the extended climax set over the court of a crucial game. The Bronze Age folks, who speak in French accents, are the undefeated football team that has reigned over the whole area. Dug and his pals are the underdogs, who challenge them to a game, seeking the right to be left alone.
One character that makes the film an interesting watch is the Bronze Age chieftain, the vain Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston). A hilariously broad caricature of a snooty Frenchman, his machinations to defeat the cavemen, and his ceaseless obsession with bronze coins, are far more diverting than Dug’s spirited efforts to whip his Stone Age pals into sporting shape.
Fitting a three-act structure, the film shows the cavemen fail at football, and then get better at football, and then be good at football, and then have a crisis of confidence over whether they can play the big game, and then play the big game. Nothing complicated yet animated with such pizzazz and told with the right blend of silly, knowing humour. Dug is achingly earnest throughout, but it wouldn’t be a Park movie if he wasn’t. Early Man is not so much a return to form as it is a long overdue comeback—and a welcome one at that.