After being driven from their land, a Bronze Age tribe make a winner-takes-all deal in an attempt to claim it back: a football match against the best team in the land.
Once fairly prolific (for a man whose actors can only move millimetres a day), Nick Park’s directorial output has slowed over the past decade — before Early Man, the BBC’s 2008 Christmas Day Wallace and Gromit short A Matter Of Loaf And Death was the last time he yelled, “Action!” to a cast of Plasticine figures. And so his pre-civilisation-set return carries with it the weight of expectation only a long absence can achieve.
A brief prologue retells how the dinosaurs became extinct: meteor hits, dinos die, humans survive (yes, they existed at the same time here) and discover the meteor is now ideally sized to kick around. Football is invented — animal skins for goalposts.
Fast forward to the Bronze Age and a tribe of hunters living in the lush forests of the meteor’s crater are attacked by an advanced civilisation led by French-accented Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), who wants to set up a mine in the ore-rich area. Not willing to accept their banishment to the neighbouring Badlands, idealistic youngster Dug (Eddie Redmayne) challenges Real Bronzio, Nooth’s best football team, to a one-off match. Win and the tribe get their land back. Lose and they’ll be forced to spend the rest of their lives working in the mines. There’s just one problem: Dug’s tribe haven’t actually played football before.
This set-up — the underdog training up for a match against superior opposition — is a sports-movie staple. It’s been mined continuously over the decades for both drama (Hoosiers, Rocky) and comedy (Cool Runnings, Space Jam). The sports and settings may change, as may the endings (choose between glorious victory or glorious defeat), but the rhythms of the films remain the same. And Early Man is no different in that respect.
Park, as you may imagine, takes the comedy route. And, if it weren’t for the clearly Bronze Age setting, you’d often be forgiven for thinking you were watching a baudy ’90s sitcom: the cast is filled with British comedy staples such as The Fast Show’s Mark Williams (Which was nice) and Johnny Vegas very much playing to type as a tribesman called Asbo. There’s also a running joke about the double meaning of the word tackle. There are moments of genius, though (including what may be the finest gag featuring a duck ever committed to film), and it takes The Flintstones’ use of animals in place of technology to darker conclusions — a zebra crossing is actually a dead zebra, splayed and laid across the road.
But while Early Man zips along and has plenty of laughs, it’s neither as charming as Wallace and Gromit at their best nor as inspired a twist on a formula as Chicken Run. It’s an entertaining distraction, but not quite the all-conquering return for Nick Park we’d hoped for.