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Lovability, wit and fun – on regular form, Nick Park’s Aardman Animations will always provide these. At their best, they give you hope that our island has a future after all. His latest film is an outstanding family comedy, an underdog sports movie set in the prehistoric age, all about football, which is incidentally referred to throughout as “football” and thankfully not “soccer”, because it is not set in the United States. The setting is Manchester, unrecognisable in that desolate ancient landscape, although the fact that one character is called “Goona” might hint that north London culture is important as well.
Early Man is wonderfully written by Mark Burton, James Higginson and Nick Park with additional material by John O’Farrell. Their gags have a sublime innocence combined with a worldly toughness: they are what Christmas cracker jokes would be like if those were properly funny. Early Man has beguiling hints of Gladiator and Bend It Like Beckham; sometimes it feels like a script Paul Laverty might have written for Ken Loach. There is something easily and unassumingly good-natured about Early Man, an indication of what a very intelligent film-maker Park is.
The story concerns two tribes going to war. First we have the hapless and ramshackle hunters of the stone age with their clubs and leopard-spotted wrestler’s trunks, a group who are happy enough in their hunting ground of the “Valley” (wait – is it actually set in London SE7?) incompetently tracking down rabbits. Their leader is Chief Bobnar (voiced by Timothy Spall) and prominent among them is a stout-hearted young man called Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne). One day, to their horror, an elephantine machine turns up, like a giant tank, and turfs them all out of their home.
These invaders represent the new-fangled modernity of the “bronze age”. They are the modern corporate exploiters, who want to mine their land for the precious gleaming metal. These people worship bronze and by the same token they worship money, too. Their leader is the appalling Lord Nooth, voiced by Tom Hiddleston with a wacky if baffling hint of John Cleese’s French accent from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He loves bronze because it is “cold and hard and slippery”, just like these very same bronze-age despoilers of the environment. Dug infiltrates these people and comes across an authentic footballing genius: Goona (voiced by Maisie Williams) who is to be destiny’s top scorer.
The pampered plutocrats of the bronze age adore football in a bread-and-circuses sort of way, but it turns out that the stone age crew were once themselves pretty useful at the beautiful game, and a sensational pre-credit sequence tells us the extraordinary role that football played at the dawn of time in shaping life on earth. That’s a scene Stanley Kubrick might have enjoyed.
The stage is set for an almighty football showdown between the bronze age and the stone age in front of a vast crowd, and there’s some very funny incidental material involving early commentators and action replays.
It’s impossible not to laugh at the inspired silliness and charm of Park’s universe. Early Man is a family film that doesn’t just provide gags for adults and gags for children: it locates the adult’s inner child and the child’s inner adult. It’s a treat.
Source: The Guardian
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