Let’s get this out of the way: Nick Park’s caveman-centric animated feature Early Man is actually about soccer. Or football, depending on which side of the pond you’re on. This half-inflated comedy about kooky Stone Age cave dwellers begins well enough, like a revisionist history lesson, maybe even like a stop-motion History of the World: Part I. It’s the Pleistocene era, and a meteor crashes into Earth, taking out a couple of adorable, cowering dinosaurs, who only moments before were battling tooth and claw — we’re meant to infer this is the extinction of all dinosaurs. What’s left after the crash is a volcanic wasteland and a few square-bodied, tiny-headed cavemen, who see the little meteor and begin kicking it around, and … then everything becomes about soccer. Aardman Animations (Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep) generally invests a great deal of care and precision into its storytelling, but this picture is somehow both simple and nonsensical. Early Man is the convoluted, caveman-populated skewering of FIFA that nobody asked for.
Park and his team of animators have always excelled at creating hilarious animals — dogs, sheep, chickens, goats — whose eccentricities are the engines of Park’s stories. The standout this time is Hognob, a wordless warthog who grunts, wheezes and howls. (He’s voiced by Park himself, who gives the funniest vocal performance in a cast that includes Eddie Redmayne, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade and Tom Hiddleston.)
Hognob is the eager but anxiety-ridden pal, the loyal companion who gets into trouble for do-gooder dunderhead Dug (Redmayne), a caveman dreamer who wants to convince the Chief (Spall) that their primitive clan should start hunting mammoths. When the clan is pushed off its land by Bronze Age bully Lord Nooth (Hiddleston) and his mechanized instruments of war, Hognob helps Dug fight back. And later, when Dug cuts a deal with Nooth to play one epic soccer match for the rights to the land, Hognob is dragged into his master’s hijinks. You get the picture.
But something about the Neanderthals and their new human counterparts falls flat. It’s much more amusing to watch Hognob pantomime his discomfort than to endure another dead line where a humanoid character explains his discomfort.
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In one well-executed Hognob scene, the pig sneaks into Nooth’s room and is left to wait while Dug seeks out some soccer balls to steal. Nooth, who’s actually been in the bathtub the entire time, mistakes the noises Hognob makes for his assistant’s, and with his back turned to the pig orders Hognob to give him a massage. Hognob’s eyes widen as he stands on his hind legs behind the unaware Nooth and examines his hooves in fright — how’s he gonna get out of this one? It’s a classic setup with a winning physical comedy payoff – that’s long been the sweet spot for Park, and one that seems to elude him for most of this film. Even when he does hit the target, things feel a bit stale, as in another scene, where the cavemen fly on a giant mallard over the soccer stadium. The second I saw the duck, I knew it would drop a well-placed monster poo. And it did.
Casting Redmayne as the lead doesn’t do anything to make the Neanderthals or humans any funnier, either. The actor’s range, here, goes only from breathy whining to less-breathy whining. Redmayne — star of The Danish Girl, Les Miserables and The Theory of Everything — is not well known for his comic timing. Here, he’s the guileless straight man who delivers the lines without finding a way to spin them or surprise us.
The director also makes the ill-advised choice of instructing Hiddleston to do a villainous French accent. What’s the point of casting a star with a well-recognized voice if you’re going to have them disguise it completely? Also, why a French accent for the leader of an evolutionarily advanced group? Is it some kind of inside soccer joke? Do the English hate French soccer players? Is there a greedy French manager they were trying to lampoon? God help the child viewers who aren’t steeped in international football, who will struggle to understand what’s going on or why it’s happening.
Hell, if you do care about soccer, this movie probably won’t speak to you, either, with the exception of a few well-placed puns, courtesy of the multiple characters voiced by Rob Brydon of The Trip fame. But soccer is not the problem. Even if Early Man were about the invention of baseball — a sport I care about more than I should — it would still elicit the same question: Why is this about the Stone Age and contemporary sports? The narrative is needlessly complicated, and it all seems crafted just to build to a single joke voiced in the third act. The cavemen finally play soccer not as individuals but as a team, and Brydon’s commentator quips that it looks as though they’re playing like “Early Man united,” a groan-worthy pun on Manchester United. The Bronze-Age team plays under Real Bronzia, so I’ll let you figure out that one on your own.