Those wags at Aardman, the British animation studio which uses artists and clay and a lot of patience to make funny movies, visit the ancient history of the human race and of “the beautiful game” for their latest, “Early Man.”
It’s a daft, adorable and decidedly English film, hand-made figures creating hand-made laughs out of sight gags, puns and inside soccer “futbol” humor. So what if it has about as much to do with ancient human history as that Creationist museum in Kentucky? They embrace the silliness of that in a movie that reminds us that English humor has been post-war Britain’s most reliable export.
Somewhere near Manchester, surviving cave men and women and their pet boar live in an idyllic crater created when asteroids hit the Earth and did in the dinosaurs (shown in the prologue). They’re hunter-gatherers, and what they gather is rabbits.
But Dug, voiced by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, wonders just how far they’d advance as a tribe if they aimed higher. You know, hunted Woolly Mammoths instead. Maybe after mastering the organization it would take to undertake such a hunt. You know, learning sign language and bird call signals. Improving their clubs, rocks and stone spears. Evolving. Just a bit.
The aged chief (Timothy Spall) is a traditionalist and won’t hear of it. He’s got the white haired wisdom of the ages on his side.
Then “progress” comes crashing down around their ears. The French-accented, armored warriors show up on bronze-plated elephants.
“Zee age of STONE eez oh-VAIR,” Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, hilarious declares). “Lahng LEEV zee age of BRONZE!”
Dug’s tribe’s valley is rich in tin and copper. Mines are in order. Bronzeworks to follow. They are dispossessed, chased into “the badlands.” It’s up to Dug to (accidentally) visit the Bronze city and find a way to get the interlopers to give them their valley back.
Street vendors sell Jurassic Pork, and pots and pans and Swiss Army knives made out of the wonder metal. And Lord Nooth (pronounced “Lord Knows”) collects bronze coins as tax and keeps the masses in line with a little bloodsport.
“Gladiatorial combat,” you wonder? I did, and that’s what they want us to believe. But no, those rude, brawny armored warriors that have the crowd baying for blood in their coliseum are on the holy pitch, ‘our ‘allowed ground,” playing “the beautiful game.”
If Dug and his people can remember the sport they’ve only seen on long-forgotten cave-paintings, maybe they can play Jurgen, Gonad and the champions in a winner-take-the-valley soccer match.
The sight gags are everywhere in these little jewel-box movies — giant caterpillars that can double as Adidas soccer shoes, a clockwork front gate lock so intricate it relies upon a final tiny sliding latch, an asteroid that hits the Earth and turns out to be the shape of a soccer ball.
And you don’t have to have played soccer — though generations of American kids now have — to get the many football/futbol gags. An appreciation of post-Python British humor doesn’t hurt, especially if you want to understand the digs at organized religion, violence and the xenophobia that led to Brexit.
How is it that the place where football was born is no longer competitive? Maybe, the movie suggests, Dug’s tribe just quit trying.
It’s not on a par with the sublime “Wallace & Gromit” films or the brilliant “Chicken Run.” But it’s quite funny, and delightful to see finger prints in not-quite-perfect clay arms and legs. And it’s comforting to know that there’ll always be an Aardman.
MPAA Rating: PG for rude humor and some action
Cast: The voices of Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Miriam Margolyes, Timothy Spall, Rob Brydon
Credits:Directed by Nick Park, script by Mark Burton and James Higginson. A Summit/Studio Canal/Aardman release.
Running time: 1:29