The new feature film from the creator of Wallace and Gromit
The new stop-animated feature film from director Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run) is set at the dawn of time. It follows a Stone-age tribe of misfits forced to win a soccer game in order to preserve their idyllic valley home.
But Early Man begins even further back: the opening sequence shows cavemen and dinosaurs coexisting (we're not going for realism anywhere here) in the Neo-Pleistocene Era (the location is somewhere near present-day Manchester we are helpfully informed, and it's around lunchtime). Out of the sky comes a small meteorite, shaped about the size of a soccer ball. It's too hot to touch, so the cavemen kick it around - and soccer is invented.
Skip forward a few thousands years and descendants of those early soccer players occupy an untouched valley. The Stone-age tribe includes a somewhat dopey kid named Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne). Life is good for Dug's tribe, if not limited - Dug's suggestion that the tribe hunt something other than rabbits (like woolly mammoths) is tersely deemed unnecessary and dangerous by the tribe's leader, Bobnar (Timothy Spall).
But soon Dug is facing bigger problems. Invaders from the Bronze-age, led by a snooty, French-accented commander, Lord North (Tom Hiddleston), enter Dug's valley. The conquerors want to turn the valley into a bronze mine and banish Dug's tribe to the adjacent badlands. Dug sneaks into the Bronze-age village to find a solution. There he meets Goona (Maisie Williams), a local girl obsessed with soccer. He also witnesses a soccer game. Then he gets the bright idea of challenging the Bronze-age superstars (their team's name is Real Bronze) to a soccer game. If Dug and his tribe win, they get their valley back. If Real Bronze wins, it's hard labour in the bronze mines for Dug and his tribe.
Early Man features much of the eccentricity and humour that characterises Nick Park's work. It's crammed with silly jokes for children and reserves many laughs for accompanying parents. Despite its male protagonist and a story involving sport, the strongest character by far is Goona, the Bronze-age girl who loves soccer - despite not being allowed to play it. Dug's insistence that Goona coaches and plays for the Stone-age team makes the film mightly enjoyable.
As does the stop-animation, which as we've come to expect from Nick Park, is brilliant. Whether it's the rendering of Dug's lush valley or the action inside the soccer stadium, the effect on the big screen is vivid animation that is often dazzling.
If there's something lacking in Early Man, it's in the story. Despite the bizarre setting and the loopiness of the plot, towards the end, things get a bit Disneyesque, with clearly defined baddies and goodies and a lack of any subtlety. But it's a minor quibble and a lot of kids will love the silliness and fast-paced action sequences. Early Man wins more than it loses.