Many millions of years ago, our human ancestors would spend their days fighting since that's all they knew what to do, but then from out of space a huge asteroid hurtled towards the Earth and when it landed, it wiped out the dinosaurs and left humanity to... play football with the ball that was left after the meteorite had hit. Thus, somewhere in the region of where Manchester UK lies today, the sport was created, but somewhere along the way the denizens of that valley lost interest in it and took to hunting rabbits instead. Now, the small tribe stick to what they know, despite Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) encouraging them to go after bigger game, but there's a new threat to their lives...
Early Man was director Nick Park's first movie for ten years, since his last Wallace and Gromit short, and it is safe to say it was much anticipated among those who followed animation as he had nothing left to prove, he had crafted some of the greatest British cartoons of all time, but many were looking forward to him delivering on something new with his accustomed stamp of quality. But then it arrived, made a small impact when everyone was going to see Marvel's Black Panther, and everyone sort of thought, oh, was that it? Was that what we were so excited about? It's not that Early Man was bad, more that it wasn't an instant classic, and though some were generous, it was slightly disappointing.
Compared to even something like The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! which was by no means universally admired, the laughs were thin on the ground here, the humour pitched very young rather than the usual, universal appeals to the funny bone which was fine, but you couldn't imagine those kids who watched Aardman Animations and grew up to appreciate all the ingenious touches they missed when they were children would return to Early Man in the same spirit. Perhaps it was down to the crossover between fans of the studio and fans of football not being that enormous, with the kids (of all ages) who were not so good at sport more likely to find their animations entertaining than those who spent their Saturday afternoons at the match, rather than the cinema.
As ever, the voice cast was impressive, with Redmayne playing it just the right side of gormless for Dug, the smartest member of a not-so-smart tribe, and the rest of them amusing enough, though aside from Timothy Spall as their leader not getting a tremendous amount to do - this was a film that lasted around ninety minutes, certainly, but about fifteen minutes of that was end credits. Tom Hiddleston was obviously enjoying himself as the baddie, Lord Nooth, exercising a dodgy French accent for the neighbouring civilisation who have really taken to bronze, making everything they can out of the stuff, and more importantly to the plot establishing football matches and indeed a whole league for their citizens to follow. Naturally, when he discovers this game was created by the idiot cavemen, he is less than happy.
The problem being, they have discovered iron ore in the cavemen's valley and wish to mine it, so turf our heroes out; the only way they can get their valley back is to win a football match against the greatest team in the league and they don't even know how to play. There were football gags here, but they were not exactly Frank Skinner and David Baddiel level, having to be less specific than those so this could travel, which it didn't, really. And if you were not interested in football and more interested in comedy, that generous nature identified with Aardman's style went some way to making Early Man fairly enjoyable, but it was not in any way hilarious for the jokes went for the obvious, less ambitious than the actual animation. Maisie Williams showed up (or her voice did) as the Bronze Age Marta, Rob Brydon showed off his mastery of accents in multiple roles, and there was a lot of goodwill to approaching this sort of thing, but the fact remained it was second division material, no matter how long it had taken to make. Music by Harry Gregson-Williams and Tom Howe.
[An audio commentary and a wealth of behind the scenes featurettes are the extras on Studio Canal's Blu-ray; picture and sound are predictably excellent.]