Many eons ago, when the Earth was young and stop-motion dinosaurs battled tooth and tusk on the plains – let's call it the pre-Pleistocene era – a meteor plummeted from the sky. The aftermath, known as the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction, wiped out our giant-lizard friends; Early Man, the latest from the English animation house Aardman, suggests that an even bigger gamechanging moment in the planet's history occurred. Somewhere in the area that would one day be blessed with the regal name "Manchester" – per a disclaimer, "around lunch-time," a joke that carbon-dates back to prehistoric times – a random, flaming orb of magma was belched out a raging volcano. It landed on a primitive Homo sapien's foot, who screamed and kicked the object away. Another person passed it to a third loincloth-wearing gent. Soon, the entire tribe had joined in. Some call this the birth of modern civilization. We call it soccer.
For people who like their toons filled to the brim with Brit whimsy, Pythonesque absurdity and claymated empathy, the news that Aardman has a new movie coming out is itself a momentous occasion. With the possible exception of Pixar, no other animation company has a better hit-to-miss ratio: the Oscar-winning short Creature Comforts (1989), those incredible Wallace and Gromit shorts and their 2005 feature The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the great poultry escapism of Chicken Run (2000), the sheer (or rather, sheared) genius of Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015). It also has an in-house resident genius in Nick Park, a wonderfully eccentric animator largely responsible for movies' signature dry wit and charm – the group's John Lasseter, minus the creepy hugs. The bar is nosebleed-seats high, in other words. Brand loyalists expect the best.
That's not what they're going to get with this mash-up ode to the cavemen who gave the world its first central midfielder defense strategy. Yes, Park's story of a Neanderthal named Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) is filled with a handful of clever throwaway gags (as dust storms and explosions wipe out dinos, a cockroach calmly dons a pair of sunglasses), giggle-inducing puns (shop names include: Flint Eastwood, Jurassic Pork) and who's-on-first style wordplay ("Mining ore!" "Or ... what?"). There's a perspective joke involving a T. Rex-sized mallard that's absolutely brilliant. And its opening sections, including bits about giant-beetle electric razors and a hunt involving a face-painted rock named Mr. Rock, suggest a Mel Brooks parody by way of Hanna-Barbera and too many antihistamines.
So far, so Flintstones, until a giant metal beast plows its way into Dug's tribal homeland. The Stone Age butts up against the Bronze Age, courtesy of a buffoonish, money-obsessed Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) who wants to claim the territory for himself. Our hero sneaks into the enemy's village and ends up on a primitive pitch, playing goalie for Nooth's champion soccer team. He's unmasked and, upon penalty of his people being banished to the badlands, Dug challenges these alloy-affiliated elitists to a winner-take-all match. It's the snobs versus the slobs, "the Bronzies vs. the Brutes" – except the latter have never kicked a ball in their life.
At which point Early Man turns into a long running joke aimed primarily at soccer fanatics, complete with training montages, morals about the usefulness of teamwork and finding your inner Renaldo, a Bronze defector who acts as a ringer (Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams) and a pair of characters who are the ancient ancestors of modern football-match commentators. "It's like Early Man ... united!" one of them exclaims upon seeing the underdogs play, and if you just laughed out loud at that, this is most certainly your jam.
But there's a sense that Park & co. are almost on autopilot at times, or are simply giddy to goof on the culture around the world's most popular sport at the expense of everything else. Even the scenes involving Hognob, a anthropomorphic prehistoric hedgehog, feel like warmed over Gromit bits. Second-tier Aardman is still superior to 75-percent of what passes for animated kids' movies, and it may be nitpicky, or perhaps flat-out nutty, to expect something along the lines of, say, A Close Shave every time out. Even the best players don't score every time they shoot. You just hope they give it their all. Early Man feels like its relying on some very tried-and-true tricks instead of the company's usual high-quality game. To use the film's terms: You go expecting a World Cup qualifying round. You leave having just seen a decent enough exhibition match.