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 them 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 (called football in the film, so you know this isn’t an American production).
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 is that the cave people 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 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, befitting the flights of fancy his films tend to take.
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.” Park tries to replicate it with Dug and Hognob, but while they show a fun chemistry, they never completely bond. That might happen if “Early Man” becomes a franchise, but it isn’t quite there in this first outing.
Looking at “Early Man” as a whole, it combines weirdly funny comedy with a sweet story about what it means to depend on others. The Homo sapiens of “Early Man” score plenty of jokes that are smartly dated.