A cheeky combination of form and content is one of the many pleasures of “Early Man,” the latest feature from England’s Aardman Studios and director Nick Park. With a prologue set in what’s called the Neo-Pleistocene Age, according to one of the opening captions, the tale of a tribe of backward Stone Age cavemen challenged by an army of oh-so-superior Bronze Age conquerors celebrates its Neanderthal heroes in a claymation format as seemingly primitive, in its cinematic way, as they are.
Of course, the simplicity is deceptive; the hand-made claymation process is actually very time-consuming and demanding. In this case it is, however, applied to a story that is quite slight and simple—but all the better for allowing a plethora of the sort of small, offhanded bits that are practically guaranteed to elicit a smile, or a giggle, and on occasion a real belly laugh. “Early Man” might not be deep or complex, but it is consistently amusing.
The aforementioned prologue, in which dinosaurs and early humans coexist (one tussle between two beasts recalls “The Lost World”), is capped by the fall of a meteorite to earth. In the rubble left behind by the blast, the grunting survivors find a round object that, curiously, resembles a soccer ball (or football, as Europeans would simply call it)—and eureka, the sport is born. The players leave behind cave drawings of their feats of skill at it.
But their Stone Age descendants have forgotten all that, becoming a goofy bunch of hunters led by likably lackadaisical Bobnar (voiced by Timothy Spall). Their traditional prey are rabbits (giving Park the opportunity to insert one of the little critters as a constant irritant to their aptitude), but one of their number, Dug (Eddie Redmayne) suggests they should go after larger game. Bobnar and the other members of the tribe scoff at the idea.
But trouble comes in a different form: the bronze-clad invaders led by the evil Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), whose purpose is to mine their valley, pushing them out into the badlands in the process. When Dug sneaks into the conquerors’ imposing city, however, he finds that they are addicted not only to football but to football challenges. So he issues one to Nooth: his champion team against Dug’s newbies, with the valley as prize.
So the contest is on, and as one might expect, it comes down to teamwork versus the prima donna showboats who make up the Real Bronzis. Dug has his work cut out for him, but gets much-needed help from Goona (Maisie Williams), a football-loving pot-seller excluded from playing on the Bronzis because she’s a girl but welcomed as coach and teammate by Dug, as well as his grunting wild boar pal Hognob (Park himself), who demonstrates smarts way beyond most of his human companions and desperately wants to play too. Nooth, on the other hand, is hobbled by his own greed and arrogance, along with abrasive verbal interventions from imperious Queen Oofeefa (Miriam Margolyes), often relayed by her message-delivering bird (Rob Brydon), who happily mimics the sender’s emotions as well as her words.
That last gag is typical of those in the script by Mark Burton and James Higginson, which mixes bits of “Flintstones” vintage with allusions to British soccer mania (another caption identifies the locale as “near Manchester,” and the color commentary that accompanies the challenge game is typical of modern times) and throwaway references to contemporary culture. To this Park adds his own characteristic touches, like the unnamed rabbit and Hognob—as well as the claymation format itself, which sets Aardman apart as a proud practitioner of old-school animation.
And then there is the expert voicework, with veterans like Spall and Margolyes happily contributing turns that complement leads Redmayne and Williams. Hiddleston, meanwhile, continues his roster of preening villains by providing the Nooth with a suitably snooty, vaguely French accent.
“Early Man” will obviously appeal especially to soccer-obsessed Europeans, but its consistent strain of genially eccentric British humor should endear it to audiences everywhere.