Early Man will delight fans of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep with its daft imagining of how cavemen invented football. As usual, Nick Park and his animation team ensure that the jokes and slapstick come thick and fast, wrapped up in Aardman’s trademark northern English warmth and DIY visual flair. Football fans, old and young, will best appreciate the many references to ‘the beautiful game’ in Early Man, but its plot and characters sometimes feel a bit tired and predictable.
The film opens in the Neo-Pleistocine Age (of course!). Near Manchester. Around lunchtime. Dinosaurs and cavemen are fighting amongst themselves when a meteorite lands on Earth. This cataclysmic event does away with the dinosaurs, but it also creates a molten football. When the cavemen discover it lying at the centre of a massive crater, they kick it around because it’s too hot to hold on to. Thus, a sport is born, inspiring Stonehenge goalposts and cave paintings.
‘A few ages later’, we meet Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe of gormless rabbit-hunters, including Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall), Treebor (Richard Ayoade) and Asbo (Johnny Vegas). Not forgetting Dug’s sidekick, Hobnob (Nick Park), a smarter-than-the-humans hog. They use new-fangled clothes pegs (mini crocodiles) and shavers (stag beetles), but football seems to be lost in the mists of time. ‘Our ancestors hunted little round beasts,’ the chief tells them. ‘I suppose they didn’t know how to draw rabbits back then.’
When Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston + dodgy French accent) and his Bronze Age army invade their idyllic valley, the ‘age of stone is over’ and the tribe are banished to the Badlands. The only way they can return home is by beating Nooth’s football team, Real Bronzio, in their huge arena. Dug enlists the help of the talented Goona (Maisie Williams), and they try to explain the rules to the rest: ‘if you kick the ball in the goal other men hug and kiss you’. But how can this ‘plucky band of knuckle-grazers’ beat the likes of blond bombshell Jurgen and Gonad the Gaul?
The play-off is great fun, featuring an inspired Instant Replay puppet show, with stick players recreating the action within a Punch and Judy booth. Elsewhere, there is a hilarious massage scene featuring a multi-tasking Hobnob, and the giant man-eating mallard is genius.
But overall Early Man is not vintage Aardman. It lacks the spark and drama of their last film, Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015), which married retro and new, the country and the city, to giddy effect. Perhaps the problem lies with the subject matter. There seems to be a curse on most films set in the era of cavemen/dinosaurs (think The Flintstones movie or Disney’s tedious Dinosaur), and the same goes for football films (Escape to Victory, anyone?), with their predictable ‘triumph of the underdog’ storylines.
It is puzzling how Early Man earned a Parental Guidance (PG) certificate. It has one occurrence of the word ‘crap’ and some mooning bottoms painted on cave walls, but surely all Nick Park’s films deserve to be Universal (U)? There is a modern trend on the part of the Film Board of Censors to mark down violent films from 18 to 15 Certificate. To mark up children’s films from U to PG just seems plain daft.