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Normally, I would suggest that all that one really needs to say about Early Man is that it is the new movie from Nick Park and Aardman Animations, the award-laden creators of the Wallace and Gromit series, the Pirates! movie, the Shaun the Sheep movie, Chicken Run, and Flushed Away. Aardman are, I suppose, the closest thing to a British version of Pixar, routinely producing films which are, if nothing else, a showcase for the highest standards of creativity and craftsmanship, and Nick Park is their highest-profile creator (he has a habit of turning up to the Oscars in all-advised home-made bow ties).

Given it routinely takes years of work, comprising thousands of person-hours, to complete a movie, one wonders just how Park settles on one of his feature-length projects: I’d be terrified of getting bored halfway through or realising the idea just wasn’t as strong as I’d thought. No matter how his process works, the end result this time sees Park and his team venturing into new territory.

As the title suggests, Early Man is set in prehistoric times, and concerns Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe of easy-going and generally inept cavemen (we should probably call them cavepeople, come to think of it). Catching even a rabbit is a push for this lot, and Dug’s ideas that they should branch out into mammoth hunting seem wildly optimistic.

Soon, however, they have bigger problems, for their verdant and peaceful valley is annexed by the forces of a much more advanced Bronze Age civilisation, overseen by the avaricious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, not that you can tell). Most of the tribe is driven into the hostile badlands where they are easy prey for predatory geese, but Dug finds his way to Lord Nooth’s city where he discovers the invaders have an unexpected Achilles’ heel – they are all mad about football (or soccer, depending on which variety of English you speak).

Dug hits upon a cunning plan – he challenges Lord Nooth’s team, Real Bronzino, to a match to determine the fate of the valley. Win, and the cave people get their home back and can live there peacefully. Lose, and they all go down the mine together. The gamble seems worthwhile, except for the fact that none of them have ever played football before…

Early Man opens with a tip of the hat from one master animator to another, as Nick Park lovingly spoofs one of Ray Harryhausen’s more famous films, the Hammer caveman picture One Million Years BC. Indeed, it initially looks like the whole thing is going to be a send-up of that kind of thing, with a few slightly Flintstones-esque jokes stirred into the mix. But then there are suddenly some jokes about football, and then the bad guys turn up, doing an array of outrageous European accents, and suddenly, it’s clear that… well, it’s clear that it’s very unclear what this film thinks it is, except on the most basic level.

Let us get the slightly problematic aspect of this film out of the way. Just as virtually every major American release these days is deconstructed to determine just what its attitude is to the Trumpclasm and the Unique Moment (etc, etc), so every significant British film is equally analysed to see if it is saying something about the probable British departure from the European project. Early Man is about a plucky bunch of cave people with British accents who come together to save their homeland from the depredations of a bunch of exploitative outsiders with French, German, and Italian accents. Togetherness and old-fashioned pluck is all it takes for them to win the day and reclaim their independence (if you doubt that this metaphor about the cave people representing the UK is intentional, the script is explicit about the fact that it was Dug’s lot who initially invented football and exported it to the rest of the world, who then learned to play it better than they did).

It’s not exactly scintillating stuff (unless you’re an op-ed chimp for the Daily Express or Daily Mail, anyway), but it least it suggests a level of depth to the film which just isn’t there most of the rest of the time: I suppose you could say Early Man is a kind of parody of sports movies (I found myself thinking particularly of Escape to Victory, but probably only because the two films are equally implausible), but a lot of the time it’s just a sports movie sprinkled with some rather variable gags, and hardly any of the little in-jokes and cinematic allusions one has come to expect from Aardman films. Quite apart from the sledgehammer satire, there are probably just a few too many gags about bodily functions for this to really qualify as a children’s film, strictly speaking, but on the other hand there’s not a great deal here for adults to enjoy on their level, either.

If you compare it to a film like Coco, which was at least as inventive and visually impressive, but also managed to be genuinely moving and included some lovely, resonant metaphors and a universal message, Early Man just comes across as rather shallow, knockabout stuff – unsophisticated slapstick backed up by a load of really bad puns. I’m not going to suggest that this isn’t a funny film, because I did laugh quite a lot, but it’s not exactly side-splitting, either, and some of the jokes earn their laughs solely because of their sheer perseverance.

There is the usual voice cast of distinguished actors, including Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Rob Brydon, Richard Ayoade, Miriam Margolyes, and so on, and the film’s technical achievements are genuinely impressive, as usual. The problem is that the script just isn’t up to the same level, and isn’t really built around a sufficiently strong central idea. This isn’t actually a bad film, and if it had been made by anyone else I expect it would be greeted as an impressive piece of work. But judged by the standards of other Aardman movies, Early Man can’t help but feel a little underpowered.

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