There’s nothing simple about stop-motion animation, that laborious filmmaking technique that requires tiny movements of intricate models to make even a few seconds of footage. Yet “Early Man“, the latest stop-motion confection from “Wallace and Gromit” producer Aardman, proves to be the simplest of pleasures.
“Early Man” is a pure joy from start to finish. The story of a tribe of simple cavemen threatened by the arrival of more advanced rivals is rendered in the signature style of Oscar-winning animator and director Nick Park. That includes both the instantly recognisable toothy plasticine character design and the dizzyingly joyous humour, all sight gags and shameless puns and weapons-grade whimsy.
As always with Aardman, utterly charming characters anchor even the most surreal flights of fancy. Eddie Redmayne eagerly provides the voice of the youngest caveman, the irrepressible Dug. He’s a whirlwind of energy and ambition among his dim-witted tribe, voiced by various British comedy stalwarts, before meeting his match in plucky Goona, played by Maisie Williams. They’re menaced by rapacious Bronze Age oligarch Lord Nooth, voiced by Tom Hiddleston with a French accent broader than a boulevard and riper than a month-old Brie.
The film largely takes place in a verdant valley, a beautifully rendered prehistoric paradise in which every tree took weeks for the animators to sculpt. This attention to detail is present in every part of the film — look out for comic newspaper headlines and other rich background detail. Another highlight is a set of dinosaurs deliberately designed to evoke the pioneering stop-motion of Ray Harryhausen.
The two tribes go to war by challenging each other to a soccer match. Yes, a soccer match. If that sounds like a bit of a non-sequitur, you’re right. It’s an enormous left turn for a film about cavemen to become a sports movie. But “Early Man” gets away with its most unexpected contrivances thanks to a combination of unassailable charm and total commitment to the bit. The sports movie element plays out exactly the way you think it will, but the film bowls along with such headlong joie de vivre that it just about works.
The sporting theme of this British film is built on subtext that might be lost on American viewers, as the British-accented cavemen invent football but then find themselves overtaken by a variety of talented foreigners. It’s a metaphor for the way the UK has exported various sports to the world and spent the subsequent centuries being rubbish, although the emphasis on teamwork and unity among British and European voices has added significance in a post-Brexit world.
That’s probably over-thinking it, however. The perfect all-ages family treat, “Early Man” hits cinemas in the UK on Jan. 26 and US movie theatres on Feb. 16.
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