If the film industry ever handed out awards for sheer determination, Nick Park and his animation team would surely be first in line to pick up a gong. Give these people an unlimited supply of plasticine and several years in which to manipulate it and they’ll invariably come up with something eminently watchable. That said, it’s many years since the likes of The Wrong Trousers first brought Park to widespread attention and there’s something dispiritingly familiar about Early Man. Furthermore, set it alongside the jaw dropping spectacle of Coco and you begin to sense the limitations of the medium. Plasticine, when all is said and done, can only stretch so far…
Early Man opens in Manchester in the ‘pre pleistocene’ era as cavemen slug it out alongside a couple of warring dinosaurs. (This, of course, is an affectionate tribute to the work of pioneer animator Ray Harryhausen – apparently One Million Years BC was the film that first inspired a young Nick Park to experiment with a movie camera.) A sudden meteor strike eliminates the remaining dinosaurs and inadvertently inspires the surviving cavemen to invent the game of football.
Many eons later, we are introduced to a tribe of Stone Age warriors living in the fertile valley created by the meteor strike. Led by the cautious Bobnar (Timothy Spall), the tribe spends much of its time hunting rabbits, but plucky, snaggle-toothed youngster Dug (Eddie Redmayne) has loftier ambitions. Why not hunt mammoths, he reasons? There’s a lot more meat on them. Bobnar, however, is reluctant to accept any form of change.
But change soon arrives anyway, in the shape of a tribe of bronze age conquerors, led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston sporting an ‘Allo ‘Allo-style French accent). He wishes to mine the valley for it’s rich bronze deposits and Bobnar’s tribe soon find themselves banished to the volcanic badlands – but not before Dug has been kidnapped and taken to Lord Nooth’s stronghold. Here, he discovers that this technologically advanced civilisation is addicted to two things – capitalism and football, a game that Dug’s tribe have somehow managed to forget over the years. In a desperate bid to save his homeland, Dug challenges Nooth’s resident team – Real Bronzio – to a football match. If Dug’s tribe wins they get to stay in their beloved valley. If they lose, they will be condemned to work in the bronze mines until they die… so, no pressure there.
Okay, it’s a promising concept and Park manages to exploit it skilfully enough, finding much humour in the telling, even if some of the jokes are so old they might have originated in the Stone Age themselves. The tribe’s smaller roles are filled by a stellar cast of voice artists and Park supplies all the requisite grunts for Dug’s porcine sidekick, Hognob. If, like me, you don’t care a jot for soccer, don’t despair, it’s not going to spoil your enjoyment of this quirky and typically charming story one little bit. But you may find yourself wondering, as I did, where Park goes from here. A pre-film trailer announcing that Shaun the Sheep is a mere year away doesn’t exactly fill me with anticipation… and we’ve been hearing for a long time that a new Wallace and Gromit is still in the pipeline, despite the death of Peter Sallis.
But wouldn’t it be great to see Nick Park try something completely different? Something totally unexpected? Meanwhile, Early Man offers an enjoyable couple of hours at the cinema, even if there are no real surprises on offer.