How much you get out of the latest animated shenanigans from Aardman studios may depend on your reactions to the following bits of visual and aural humour: a zebra pelt is used as a crosswalk; and a soccer team’s cohesion has someone referring to them as “early Man United.”
The first gag is a play on Britain’s “zebra crossings,” the second a pun on the name of its Manchester football team. Early Man is a funny romp through prehistory, but it’s staunchly British, and makes no apologies. Though to be fair, most of its caveman humour doesn’t know any geographical boundaries. And most of its cavemen don’t even know how to spell that.
The time period is somewhere between the Late Pleistocene and the Early Plasticine era. Dug, voiced by Eddie Redmayne, is the brightest member of a tribe of cave dwellers whose simple, rabbit-hunting-and-gathering lifestyle is given a shake when they encounter a society that has figured out bronze. The newcomers are led by a Frenchman (Tom Hiddleston doing a Monty Python-style French accent) and his band of Euro-baddies (more Brits). There’s a weird Brexit subtext to the whole matchup, although given the time period maybe it’s more pre-Br’entrance.
The bronze-agers take over the cavemen’s valley, until Dug challenges them to a football match to win it back.
He’s confident, after discovering ancient rock paintings that suggest his tribe invented the game. But the players of “Real Bronzio” have all the latest tech, including puppet-driven instant replays that favour their team. You’ve heard of fake news? This is fake sports.
And so we have the classic setup in which a bunch of underdogs (and one under-pig, a sabretoothed hog voiced by director and co-writer Nick Park), must band together against seemingly impossible odds. They’re aided by Goona (Maisie Williams), a soccer-lover from the bronze side, fed up with not being allowed to play because she’s female.
The humour is all over the pitch, which means some jokes will fly over the heads of younger (and/or non-British) viewers, but also that there’s something for almost everyone to enjoy. (Though I must pause here to make a formal request to comedies: You know that scene where several characters are startled by one another, and the camera cuts from one of them screaming, to another, to another? Please. Stop.)
The stop-motion animation is up to the usual Aardman standards, as is the studio’s unusual but endearing obsession with rabbit characters. It’s not quite the equal of 2015’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, but it’s a step above The Pirates! from 2012. If Early Man was an Olympic competitor, it wouldn’t be breaking any records but would easily qualify for a third-place medal.