Nick Park’s movies are so rooted in a particularly twee English spirit, they feel like they’re being projected onto a tea cozy. The veteran animator, who created the Wallace and Gromit characters and directed the wonderful feature film Chicken Run, has always captured his home country as a land of open-hearted, plucky people who are adorably set in their ways. When he announced his newest project Early Man, his first feature in more than 12 years (the last being Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), I was intrigued by how different it sounded. A prehistoric adventure set in the Stone Age? Certainly a departure for Park.I shouldn’t have doubted him. Early Man is a Neolithic narrative shot through with the old-fashioned earnestness of all of Park’s claymation films. He’s taken a story of flint-wielding cavemen clashing with heavily armored Bronze Age warriors and turned it into a tale of an epic soccer rivalry between good stout English folks and fancy puffed-up Frenchmen. It’s just about the biggest cliché one could imagine for a British animated feature. And yet like any Park film, it’s pretty charming, the kind of kids movie that finds the right mix of slapstick humor and intelligent storytelling to keep everyone in the audience happy.
The hero of Early Man is Dug (Eddie Redmayne), a toothy, snout-nosed boy in a furry loincloth who spends his days hunting rabbits with the rest of his tribe, including Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall). Like many a children’s film protagonist, Dug dreams of something more, perhaps trying to hunt wooly mammoths rather than rabbits, but every time he brings it up, he’s told to keep his hopes planted near his feet. But when a bullying army clad in bronze armor arrives, Dug is forced to fight for his clan, and he quickly discovers that the invaders’ favorite form of combat is football.
That’s football in the English sense, of course, and this entire film (largely set in a blasted landscape blighted by a meteor strike) is jokingly set “near Manchester,” the home of two of England’s most famous teams. If you were being generous, you could call Early Man an origin story for Manchester United, just tens of thousands of years off from the team’s actual founding date. But that might be too generous. Really, all Park is getting at is his countrymen’s favorite way of loudly working through their feelings—by watching a soccer game.
There are plenty of caveman jokes in Early Man: Dug’s tribal pals are all various levels of dim-witted, and there’s some nicely surreal animal humor involving a boar called Hognob (voiced by Park) and a gigantic duck that rampages near their home valley. But for the most part, this is a straightforward sports movie, down to the montages and the extended climax set over the court of a crucial game. The Bronze Age folks (who all speak with ludicrous French accents) are the overwhelming favorites, an undefeated football team that reigns over the whole area. Dug and his pals are the underdogs, who challenge them to a game, seeking the right to be left alone.My biggest problem with Early Man was something I’ve encountered with a lot of Park’s work—I immediately sympathized with the bad guys. Or, at least, I was energized any time they were on screen, and a little bored when it was back to Dug and the gang. The Bronze Age chieftain, the vain Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston), is a hilariously broad caricature of a snooty Frenchman, one step removed from those insult-hurling knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. His machinations to defeat the cavemen, and his ceaseless obsession with bronze coins, are far more diverting than Dug’s spirited efforts to whip his Stone Age pals into sporting shape.
But Park needs his film to fit a three-act structure, and so the viewer must watch the cavemen fail at football, and then get better at football, and then be good at football, and then have a crisis of confidence over whether they can play the big game, and then play the big game. It’s not complicated stuff, but it’s animated with such pizzazz (Park really shows off with the crowd scenes, which must have been immensely complicated to create in stop-motion) and told with the right blend of silly, knowing humor. Dug is achingly earnest throughout, but it wouldn’t be a Park movie if he wasn’t. Early Man is not so much a return to form as it is a long overdue comeback—and a welcome one at that.