Early Man — from Aardman Animation and Nick Park, the creators of Wallace and Gromit — is an origin story, of sorts, for the Manchester United football (soccer) team set in caveman days. It’s also every bit as British as that sounds, so British that in a climactic moment, as one of the bad guys charges up to steal the ball from one of the good guys (a good lady, in this case), she yells “Show me your tackle!” and he covers his crotch in fear. Come for the Britishness, stay for the penile entendre.
Like an unholy combination of Space Jam, The Flintstones, Monty Python, and Air Bud, Early Man is goofy, breezy, at times nearly impenetrably British, and, because of its claymation animation, retains a homemade, “How did they do that?” charm that you don’t find in much these days. Of course, the story is rarely as charming and funny as the character design itself, which is a nice problem to have. The occasional fingerprint ridges or tiny dust flecks on the clay, or the even more fascinating crying scenes, where the clay characters somehow emit tears made of real water carry Early Man through its occasional lulls. Not that there are many.
Which is not to say that the best thing a movie can be these days is short (though there’s some truth to that), it’s that Early Man defines “lark.” It doesn’t attempt the culture-defining sweetness of Paddington 2 or the tearjerking gravitas of Coco, it’s a string of what ifs and yes ands that doesn’t need to destroy a giant portal at the end. And thank God for that.
Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) is a buck-toothed caveman (Aardman loves overbites the way Gary Larson loved beehive haircuts and cat’s eye glasses) living in a verdant valley with his small band of hunter-gatherers, all of whom seem a little “off.” One guy’s best friend is a giant rock with a mouth drawn on it, another is very fat with a tiny head and constantly embarrassed by his horny mum, and two or three of them don’t seem to have quite evolved to the point of intelligible speech or binocular vision. Dug’s best friend is a pig named Hognob (a strange portmanteau of penile euphemisms, but sure whatever) who acts like a dog.
They live a contented, if simple existence in their valley, hunting rabbits for meager suppers and cavorting around the fire in animal skins. That is, until the Bronze Age runs roughshod over them, led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), a disdainful Frenchified provincial governor from a much more advanced civilization who banishes them to the badlands. Through a hare-brained series of events, this eventually leads to Dug’s tribe rediscovering football (aka soccer, aka fútbol) and a climactic match pitting Dug’s stone age against “Reál Bronzio,” presided over by “Queen Oofeefa.” (I could’ve done with more FIFA satire, to be honest.) Yes, if you don’t get the references Early Man will probably be a lot less fun.
Like a lot of classic British humor, Early Man vacillates easily from subtle wordplay to non-wordplay wordplay (that’s where a background character simply enunciates what’s happening in a crisp accent) to wild absurdism, like a recurring gag with a giant duck. Rob Brydon from The Trip movies voices Early Man‘s funniest bit, featuring a messenger bird, that draws perfectly on Brydon’s particular set of skills. His are the only bits of the film that really approach belly laugh levels (though you can upgrade other parts as needed depending how of an Anglophile you fancy yourself).
I’m not sure Early Man has some grand moral or message, or that it needs to. It’s content to be what it is — a bit of silliness, really. It’s an excuse for goofy slapstick and wordplay. And it’s the rare light fare that can be light without feeling like chintzy gift shop pandering. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie aimed at kids where no characters shook their furry butts toward the camera or danced to hip-hop. Even Paddington 2 had a butt-shaking scene.
That it doesn’t feel so desperate to be loved allows Early Man to exist as a kind of plucky underdog. You want it to succeed despite whatever else because it feels homemade, natural, and true to itself.