Look closely towards the end of the credits. You’ll see that the two dinosaurs wrestling each other during the opening moments of the new Aardman Animations stop-motion comedy, Early Man, are named Ray and Harry. To the young, it’ll mean nothing. To those who know their visual-effects classics, the mention is yet another great gag among the many that leap off the screen every minute or so. It’s a reference to the man who basically pioneered the use of stop-motion creatures, Ray Harryhausen. And strangely enough, when you see that introductory sequence with the jerky motion of the dinos as they grapple in front of an erupting volcano, it’s Harryhausen who springs to mind.
Early Man is the laugh-out-loud family feature from the British tribe who created Wallace and Gromit, and it truly is laugh-out loud. After the opening titles with the dinosaurs and the volcano telling us we’re in ‘The Neo-Pleistocene Age,’ followed by ‘Near Manchester,’ then a beat later, ‘Around Lunchtime,’ you’re already laughing. Then when a massive meteorite plummets to the earth, destroying everything, with the exception of a roach who slaps on a pair of sunglasses to protect itself from the glare, the laugh comes even louder, but with it comes a concern.
The film has only just begun, and already it’s produced three laughs, each progressively louder than the one before. Surely it can’t maintain the momentum of silliness for the remaining eighty-nine minutes? Well, it does, and like any jest-fest where jokes, puns, and sight-gags come at you every thirty seconds or so, don’t worry if you didn’t get a particular Brit reference or a moment of localized wit, there’ll be another big laugh you will understand in just a couple of moments.
After that plunging meteorite episode is done and the dust around the earth finally settles, it’s now the Stone Age, a time when men roamed the world in tribes, lived in caves, and hunted for food using sticks with pointy bits of rock at the end. For the tribe lead by Chief Bobnar (voiced by Timothy Spall in full cockney), the chief source of sustenance comes from rabbits – the tribe is not really equipped to hunt anything bigger, and the thought of chasing a woolly mammoth is way too much effort. Plus, the chief’s not one to get out of bed before sunrise. When enthusiastic caveman Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) wakes the chief and tells him it’s time to go hunting, the elder complains, “Bit early, ‘n it, Dug?”
What those cavemen don’t realize is that they’ve neglected to keep up with current events. Just over the hill, there’s another more civilized, educated tribe. They’re from the Bronze Age, and there’s just no beating them. When a Bronze Age army turns up in search of more buried bronze, trampling through the woods in a machine that Zach Snyder might have used in 2014’s 300: Rise of an Empire, the cavemen scatter, except for Dug, who is accidentally knocked into a basket where he hides and is eventually taken back to the Bronze Age village. As the villainous leader of the army, Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) with the outrageous, Pythonesque French accent declares, “The Stone Age is over. Long live the age of bronze.”
Look closely as Dug wanders around the Bronze Age market place; there are sight-gags everywhere, including a poster for ‘Bum Soft Toilet Paper: The Number 2 Choice.’ Plus when a local customer tastes a free sample of the newly invented sliced bread from the bakery stand, he announces, “Wow. That’s the best thing since… forever!”
But Early Man isn’t just the adventures of a caveman out of his element, a man in fur with a pointy stick whose best friend is a wild boar named Hognob (animal grunts courtesy of the film’s director, Nick Park), it’s really a film about playing football. Not the one where the players run around carrying the ball, trampling over each other while accumulating yards, its the other one beloved by the rest of the world, the one where the talent is in using the feet (hence the name); the one that’s referred to as ‘The Beautiful Game.’
Interestingly, the practicing and the climactic playing of football between the Bronze Age team and those who (according to the film) actually invented it, the Cavemen, is something the advertising hype and the film’s stateside trailers neglected to mention. European audiences might see the film as a comical way of hooking on to the hype for the oncoming 2018 World Cup games. The rumored original title was, after all, Early Man-United. American audiences might not be quite so interested. But don’t let personal preferences or prejudices for what you consider to be the better game with the same name get in your way, this film is a true delight. As one of the two commentators narrating the climactic affair between the ages declares after a foul on the field is made, “That’s not cricket, whatever cricket is.”
A lot of the non-stop humor comes not only from the jokes, but from the sound of the voices that deliver them. There’s no reason why characters who grew up in the same tribes as neighbors should sound cockney, Brummie, Geordie, Scottish, well-spoken, or even French, but they do, and it makes everything funny sound funnier. Plus, the old-fashioned style of claymation, where the movement in each frame is the result of a puppeteer’s handy-work rather than the overuse of a digital computer to smooth the effects, is such a pleasure to watch. From time to time you might even see a fingerprint or a plasterscene crease appear for just a fraction of a second on the bodies of the characters. And look as close as you can during a crowd shot; if you’re fast enough you should catch Wallace and Gromit in the stadium cheering on the teams.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 89 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)