One of the most appealing things about the films of Aardman Animations is their hand-crafted nature. From fingerprints in the modeling clay to the simple character designs, their films possess a rough-hewn, tactile quality that sets them apart from the more polished work of studios like Laika -- which puts a more modern spin on the age-old art of stop-motion animation through the use of 3D printing and CGI details. Aardman films pack a lot of personality into their plasticine creations, and they tend to be filled to the brim with their unique brand of sweet, good-natured silliness.
The charming "Early Man" is no different. The latest film from Nick Park, creator of "Wallace and Gromit" and co-director of "Chicken Run," the Stone Age adventure's simple plot follows a plucky caveman named Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne). Under the leadership of Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall), the sweet, but dim-witted tribe reside in their forest valley, hunting rabbits for food, and generally living in blissful peace. Still, Dug dreams of something more.
Then one day, the tribe's valley is besieged by a Bronze Age army led by the snooty Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). The bullying invaders intend to take the valley for themselves, planning to mine the Neanderthals' home for its valuable deposits of bronze. Captured and brought to the Bronze Age city, Dug ends up challenging the more advanced civilization to a game of football (or as we Yanks know it, soccer), with the winner gaining control of the valley.
While in the city Dug also meets Goona (Maisie Williams), who it turns out is a pretty skilled football player, but has been forbidden from playing the game because she's a girl. Dug brings Goona back to his home, enlisting her to help whip his people into shape for the big game.
For a movie that's nothing but football from its very first scene, it's kind of impressive that the American trailers managed to hide that aspect of the plot entirely (I'm assuming the film's American distributor didn't trust the sport to immediately draw major crowds in this country). The brief prologue that opens the film has shown how the ancient ancestors of Dug's tribe first invented the game. While over the generations those skills have faded from memory, they exist somewhere deep down inside them all -- they just have to get back in touch with their roots.
"Early Man" rather quickly reveals itself to be a fairly traditional underdog sports movie, as a ragtag group of amateurs must overcome their lack of experience in order to defeat a team of more polished rivals (cue the training montages!). As such, the script by Mark Burton and James Higginson can't avoid feeling overly familiar. But the film is anchored by an unmistakably British belief in the ability of football to settle all ills. While acting as an ode to the sport, it manages to work in some lessons about the power of working together and the negative aspects of tribalism.
Perhaps predictably for an Aardman film, it's the odd stuff on the periphery that's where the film's heart truly lies. Most of the human characters get only the most cursory of characterization. Much more personality is given to unusual animals -- a boar called Hognob (voiced by Nick Park himself), who's Dug's faithful companion, and admittedly, is basically Gromit with tusks. There's also some hilarious encounters with a prehistoric duck, but the less spoiled about that the better.
The film's chief pleasures are derived from that offbeat Aardman sensibility: slapstick, sight gags, and wordplay (a love of puns is required for any Aardman picture) abound. There's a cheeky sense of humor which feels descended from the likes of Abbott and Costello, Mel Brooks, and Monty Python -- down to the Python-esque French accents sported by the film's Bronze Age characters.
Though always amusing, "Early Man" isn't quite up to the level of the studio's legitimately great prior work. But when that past work includes treasures like "Curse of the Were-Rabbit," "Shaun the Sheep," and the underrated "Arthur Christmas," that's at least forgivable. Even the worst from Aardman is more clever and enjoyable than most of the output from certain major animation studios. While "Early Man" doesn't seek to reinvent the wheel, it's still enough to put a big, silly smile on your face while you're watching.