For members of a certain generation, stop-motion animation is a time machine back to childhood as swift and efficient as Proust’s madeleine. Tangible and tactile, it creates the feeling of watching kids play with toys, as opposed to today’s 3D animation; adults playing with toys. Director Nick Park has carried the torch for stop-motion animation for over a decade now with hit features like Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, but with Early Man he’s finally crafted a story that aligns perfectly with his chosen style.
Early Man harbors a Luddite spirit, cautioning its viewers not to fully reject the principles of the past. It gets its first laugh in the opening five seconds. Over a title card reading “Neo-Pleistocene era,” we see a series of cavemen engaged in a prehistoric brawl. The next card reads “Manchester,” followed by one that says simply, “Lunch.” From here we zoom in to our hero, Dug (Eddie Redmayne) is a kindhearted teenage caveman living an idyllic existence among a tribe of dolts led by the benevolent Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall). They spend their days in their green valley hunting rabbit (who, true to the film’s mirthful tone, don’t even mind being caught and eaten) and their nights singing songs by campfire.
They are cast out of their Eden by an arrogant group of Frenchmen who announce themselves as representatives of the Bronze Age. Intent on mining the valley for ore, Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) evicts the cavemen to the desolate badlands. Dug has other ideas. He sneaks into their bronze-laden village and, through a series of narrative twists that make perfect sense as long as you don’t think about them at all, ends up challenging Lord Nooth’s soccer team to a high-stakes match, with the fate of his tribe on the line.
So in addition to being a cautionary tale on the effects of modernity, Early Man is also a sports movie. Sort of. Dug and his new friend Goona (Maisie Williams), an athletic girl whose dreams of playing soccer in the big stadium are prohibited by her gender, set about training the dumb cavemen to play the game. It’s the Bronze Age vs. the Stone Age, complete with a wacky training session, a trope that sports movies ran into the ground several decades ago. But scripters Mark Burton and James Higginson throw enough bizarre tangents into the story that nothing feels stale for long. There is a bizarre running gag about a giant, man-eating duck, a guy who is in love with a rock, and a warthog who gives massages and plays the harp.
These unexpected comic set pieces will keep audiences on their toes, but they come at a cost. Early Man aims for a tricky balance between emotionally-grounded comedy and absurdist humor, and too often the imaginative flights of fancy keep it from being tethered to its characters. The cast does their best with the material, and there is a certain glee in hearing prestige actors Redmayne and Hiddleston prove so adept at silly voices.
But as the film’s aim vacillates between the heart and the imagination, these characters—and ultimately, this story—never comes to mean very much. In an age when major film studios are increasingly leaning toward the cookie-cutter approach to storytelling, Early Man’s esoterics are a welcome relief, but sometimes it’s too bizarre for its own good.
Early Man opens Friday in theaters everywhere.