Forget the Druids and their religious ceremonies. The great mystery of Stonehenge is finally solved in “Early Man”: It was all about setting up goalposts for prehistoric soccer.
This gag — very logically worked out — is typical of the work of Aardman Animation, the Oscar-winning group responsible for the “Wallace & Gromit” movies and “Chicken Run.” Aardman and director Nick Park set their new one a few thousand years ago, but the humor remains suspiciously of 21st-century Britain.
The soccer joke isn’t a throwaway — the game features heavily in the storyline. But first, we’re introduced to a modest tribe of cavemen, who modestly keep to themselves, despite occasional attacks from outside.
The best jokes are in the early going. I don’t know why one caveman’s best friend is clearly a stone pillar with a smile painted on its “face,” but it’s the kind of concept Aardman can work until all the comic possibilities are exhausted.
All-too-human characters and absurdist gags are Aardman’s bread and butter. Speaking of which, we witness history’s first appearance of a culinary innovation: “Sliced bread!” says an observer. “That’s the greatest thing since… well, ever.”
Our hero is Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), a dreamer who discovers there’s a whole Bronze Age waiting to be discovered outside his tribe’s home valley. He finds an ally in this advanced civilization in Goona (Maisie Williams), a soccer fanatic not allowed to play the sport because she’s a girl.
The movie’s best character is its villain, Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), who wants to exploit the caveman valley for mining purposes. He can only be stopped by a good outing on the soccer pitch, which strongly resembles a Roman coliseum here.
Lord Nooth speaks in an extremely foppish French accent, a depiction worthy of a classic Monty Python sketch. One thing the British are always up for is a good joke at the expense of the French.
Having found much to laugh at in the first half-hour of “Early Man,” it is with regret that I have to report that the movie falls off after that. Aardman and Nick Park have established high standards, and too much of “Early Man” doesn’t hit the mark.
It relies on the traditional sporting match as plot climax. Although there are a couple of funny play-by-play commentators and an inspired use of puppets for instant replay — “The puppets don’t lie” — the game takes up too much valuable time. But with the World Cup approaching this year, this could have much more appeal than I suspect.
“Early Man” (3 stars)
An Aardman (“Chicken Run”) animation feature, set during the Bronze Age. Lots of good jokes in the early going, but it must be admitted that the usual Aardman standard slips a little once the story settles on a big soccer match. The voice actors include Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston.
Rated: PG, for violence
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