By Jim Slotek
As I occasionally do, I will open this review by mildly nerding out – in this case, over the way animator Nick Park opens the sweetly-jokey Early Man, which is pretty much a reboot of The Flintstones with soccer.
It opens in the “Pleistocene,” where dinosaurs battle (thought they should already have been extinct 63 million years), as do early humans. By now, five-year-olds know humans and dinos should only be seen together in Jurassic Park movies and Creation museums. A meteor falls, destroying the dinos (but not the humans).
The fact that this all happened “near Manchester,” untethers this glib little fable about the invention of football from the world, setting it in one of its own creation. There, Stone Age man is being shoved aside by Bronze Age man, who has taken the hominids’ proto-sport and turned it into an arena circus attended by thousands, who worship at the feet of rich young athletes.
It’s a Nick Park movie though, so there’s not much to suggest any goofily-imagined character is more highly evolved than any other. They’ve all got Wallace and Gromit-y faces with giant rounded teeth. But hey, the Bronze-agers have bronze!
The central character is Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), a young caveman who feels his tribe should aspire to more than hunting rabbits (though they’re not even very good at that). He futilely urges same to the Chief (Timothy Spall). But the argument becomes moot when Bronzers sweep them out of their valley to accommodate their bronze-mining activities, and into “the Badlands” (where they are chased around by a vicious giant duck).
A desperate Dug infiltrates the city of Bronzia and discovers their entire life revolves around football, the forgotten sport of his own ancestors. His one chance to return his people to their ancient lands involves challenging the unbeatable Real Bronzia to a game. (Win and they’re allowed home. Lose and they work in the mines forever).
Thus is set the basics of the typical sports underdog story, with glib puns and Bedrock-esque imaginings. The Chief shaves with an “electric razor” that is actually a giant, follicle-munching beetle. A “message bird” actually delivers impressions of the sender - appropriately spoken by master-impressionist Rob Brydon (The Trip), who also voices the game colour commentators Bryan and Brian.
And the “instant replays” of the game are actually puppets, whose recreations of events invariably favour the home team.
If the underdogs (or “Brutes” as they are identified on the scoreboard) are going to win, they need a secret weapon – which they have in the person of Goona (Maisie Williams), a footie-wizard who isn’t allowed to play for Real Bronzia because they don’t accept girls.
Overseeing his city’s must-win event is the villainous, bronze-hoarding Lord Nooth, voiced by Tom Hiddleston, who brings enough petulance to the performance to power 10 Lokis.
It’s an enjoyable, light comedy experience. Though as always, I have to remind myself that children are an intended audience (as well as adults), and the wordplay might sometimes get lost on kids. Stuff like: “Is something wrong? You haven’t even finished your primordial soup?” or “Sliced bread! That’s the best thing since, well… ever!” (My favourite gag involves Lord Nooth commanding, “Take him away and kill him slowly.” I’ll leave it to you to figure out how that decree is followed).
Early Man. Directed by Nick Park. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Maisie Williams. Opens wide, Friday, February 16.