It’s been nearly three decades since Aardman Animations star Nick Park completed his first Wallace and Gromit adventure, “A Grand Day Out,” and in that time, the medium has advanced so much that those first shorts look downright primitive by comparison to what stop-frame animators can accomplish today (with the aid of computer graphics and 3D printers). Perhaps that’s where the Oscar-winning director got the idea for his latest feature, “Early Man,” an endearingly old-school comedy that speculates on the origins of soccer and how a caveman named Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) captained the most exciting match in all of pre-history.
Though equipped with digital cameras and all sorts of tools he never could’ve dreamed of at the outset of his career, Park and his team instead embrace the relatively rough, hand-crafted style upon which Aardman built its brand, as opposed to the more polished yet somehow more impersonal look of “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” and other more CG-heavy titles of recent years. The result is a welcome return to a form of stop-motion that takes pride in the technique’s inevitable imperfections (such as thumbprints in the modeling clay), while putting extra care into the underlying script, with its daffy humor and slightly-off characters.
As far as European audiences are concerned, Aardman hopes to take early advantage of whatever excitement may be building in the lead-up to the 2018 World Cup, orchestrating an elaborate under-Dug story in which the cavemen must defend their turf from a far more advanced team of Bronze Age bullies. In the U.S., however, where the sport isn’t nearly so popular (and where Aardman’s “Shaun the Sheep Movie” became the company’s lowest grossing feature, earning less than $20 million), the film will be a decidedly trickier sell for Lionsgate, who are distributing Stateside.
Fortunately, “Early Man” is as charming as they come, bursting with the kind of daffy humor and off-kilter characters that have earned the company a worldwide following. From the opening inside-joke (a title card announcing the Neo-Pleistocene Era, which sounds an awful lot like Plasticine, the material from which Aardman characters are sculpted), Park and screenwriters Mark Burton and James Higginson lean heavy on the puns — although what the creative team appears to love most are the tiny throwaway gags that crowd the margins and background of the frame, making this the kind of detail-rich movie that ought to reward repeat viewings.
“Early Man” introduces dinosaurs just long enough for them to go extinct, then reveals how our ancestors (molded from clay, like the Good Book says) turned a natural disaster — a spectacular asteroid strike — into a kind of “sacred game” by kicking about the still-smoldering Goldberg polyhedron that had fallen from the heavens. Flash forward a few centuries, and the sport has been all but forgotten by Dug’s tribe, who instead focus their energy on bunny hunting and gathering (a perfect excuse for Park to insert an adorable animated rabbit, who pops into frame and squeaks whenever the script needs an easy laugh).
In their primitive naïveté, they’re no match for Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, whose hammy Gallic accent recalls the French guards in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”). A beak-nosed ruler from the Bronze Age, Nooth intends to take over their land and transform it into a giant mine, where Dug and company will be forced to dig for precious metals. Somehow, this tiny group of near-Neanderthals (one caveman shy of a soccer team) were left in the dust as civilization moved forward without them, and they’re still using Stone Age-tools — and in some cases, barely able to string a sentence together — while their invaders live in elaborate walled cities complete with gladiator-scale sporting arenas (whose elaborate crowd shots no doubt demanded CG assistance, but never call attention to themselves as such).
That’s what makes “Early Man” such an appealing addition to the Aardman oeuvre: Though it benefits from the latest digital advances, the film feels as if it was made almost entirely by hand. Both the cavemen and their Bronze Age counterparts have that blobby, googly-eyed, Chiclet-toothed look fans associate with Park’s most popular character, world-famous cheese afficionado Wallace — an aesthetic that diverges strongly from the fine-limbed, elaborately colored designs introduced by Laika (“Coraline,” etc.) to the medium of stop motion in recent years.
If “Early Man” seems crude by comparison, that’s kind of the point. Consider this: 2013’s computer-animated hit “The Croods” was initially intended as an Aardman production (developed under the working title “Crood Awakening”) before DreamWorks Animation decided to make it as a flashy CG family movie instead, seizing full advantage of the roller-coaster potential of stereoscopic 3D. “Early Man” may as well be the opposite approach, in which Park takes the bare-bones caveman concept as an opportunity for a more lo-fi, character-driven project.
In addition to Dug and Nooth, standouts among the ensemble include the vain Bronze Age soccer stars, as well as a young woman, Goona (Maisie Williams), whose advanced civilization shortsightedly forbids her from playing soccer. That gives Goona reason to switch sides and assist the Stone Age team, while making her into the sort of female role model America Ferrara voiced in “How to Train Your Dragon.”
And then there are the adorably ugly animals, which range from a ridiculous T. Rex-sized duck (complete with teeth, a requirement for any Aardman creature) to Lord Nooth’s colorful message bird (Rob Brydon), who dutifully takes dictation, parroting back even the most inappropriate of messages, like some kind of Flintstones-era answering service. The most Gromit-like is Dug’s pet Hognob, a woolly, orange boar of sorts, with giant tusks and spindly legs who desperately longs to join the team.
When it comes to the big soccer championship, “Early Man” doesn’t offer many surprises (which probably explains why Aardman has downplayed the sports-movie aspect of the project in trailers), though its creators have crammed the film so full of jokes, both visual and dialogue-based (the latter doubly amusing on account of the accents involved), that scarcely a minute goes by without some clever gag to crack a smile. On one hand, it’s strange to think that Park’s career was leading up to this, while on the other, it’s a treat to regress to the kind of inspired silliness “Early Man” unapologetically has to offer.