Maybe you don’t know Aardman Animations by name; in the United States, they don’t have the instant recognition of Pixar or Disney. But chances are you know the UK studio’s distinctive stop-motion clay-animation work, like the characters Wallace and Gromit, their first major hit “Chicken Run,” and the recently charming “Shaun of the Sheep.” Their latest, “Early Man,” is mostly the same: a little eccentric, a little erratic, equally hilarious and gross visually, and consistently amusing.
From the start, “Early Man” feels quite European—a variety of British accents are peppered through this thing, evidenced by the cast of Brits, like Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, and Timothy Spall—and that’s even before it’s revealed that the movie is actually an origin story for the game of soccer. (Excuse me—football.) The humor is a little drier and more macabre, and the plot centers on a feudal system in which an evil lord is forcing his subjects to pay “voluntary contributions” that go straight into his pockets. It may all be a little unfamiliar to American kids used to the multicolored and fast-paced insanity of most children’s films, but once the laughs get going (and they do, fairly quickly), they should be won over.
The film begins in a secluded forest, where a Stone Age-era tribe led by Chief Bobnar (voiced by Spall) has a quiet, nondramatic existence. They hunt small rabbits, make friends with rocks, and in general don’t do anything risky, reckless, or challenging, to the increased disappointment of young caveman Dug (voiced by Redmayne). With his trusty pet pig Hogknob by his side, Dug wants to encourage the tribe members to dream bigger, but that plan is undermined when the tribe’s forest lands are attacked by soldiers from the Bronze Age, who live in the land surrounding the forest.
The soldiers are under the control of Lord Nooth (voiced by Hiddleston), kind of pronounced like the word “nose” if you had a cold, who does, in fact, have a large, aggressive nose. The man is obsessed with bronze—with crafting things from it, counting it, and collecting it—and he’s convinced that the forest has untapped reserves that should go into his pockets. When Dug accidentally sneaks into the Bronze Age city, he sees examples of Lord Nooth’s greed, but also something he’s never seen before: a game played in a field, in which two opposing teams of players kick a ball at each other toward two opposing goals.
Lord Nooth calls it “football,” and he claims it’s a game that only the advanced Bronze Age society would dream up, and of course a game that only men play. But in Dug’s desperation, he challenges Lord Nooth’s champion team: If Dug and his tribe can beat them, they can go back to the forest and Lord Nooth won’t mine it. But if they lose, well, the land goes to Lord Nooth, and the tribe will have to work in the mines and live in the Badlands, which are fiery, desolate, and full of weird animals, like gigantic, man-eating mallard ducks.
What happens next is of a type with most any sports-related film: there are training sequences, and various montages of the tribe members pushing and encouraging each other, and an unexpected ally in the form of Goona, a young Bronze Age woman who is infuriated with the fact that Lord Nooth won’t let girls pay soccer, and who wants to change the status quo. Various messages about believing in yourself, changing your fate, and challenging others’ expectations of you are attached to all this, too.
What helps set “Early Man” apart, though, is that stop-motion clay-animation style, which is so visually striking, and a nice sense of zany humor, like the aforementioned giant mallard, a scene where Hogknob somehow ends up massaging and serenading an unsuspecting Lord Nooth, and a gag where a message-delivering bird ends up putting to memory only the things Lord Nooth doesn’t want to share with others. For the most part, scenes play out like you would expect, but every so often one takes an off-kilter turn that you’ll unexpectedly enjoy.
The voice performances are solid (Redmayne and Hiddleston are particularly unrecognizable, which is a good thing), the visual gags are plentiful (I perhaps laughed a little too hard at a joke about flopping in football), and the humor is continuous. “Early Man” is another Aardman Animations offering that delivers frivolity and feeling in equal measure.