This beautifully crafted “underdog prehistoric sports movie” is an endearing all-age film that eschews cynicism and revels in its inventive and very silly British humour.

Studio:     Aardman
Time:       89  mins + approx.  50 mins bonus features

Early Man is a clash of civilisations, where football is the means of bringing them together, but writer/director Nick Park insists that this is not a football film, per se.

The movie maintains Aardman’s appealing homespun warmth, but on a new epic scale (with their biggest sets ever) that sometimes suggests a stop-motion Lord of the Rings – although Park reveals that there is mainly inspiration from Gladiator.  

That blend of homespun warmth and technological progress is particularly suited to the story, where a valley-dwelling Stone Age tribe is unaware that just up the road, a Bronze Age civilisation has already mastered massive industrial achievements – unaware, that is, until the Bronze-agers, led by a huge armour-clad mammoth, take over the village to extract its ore.

(There’s a wonderful gag where a foreman is instructed, “Start mining ore,” with the innocent corny response, “Or what?”)

The story is led by Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his loyal pig Hognob (grunted by Park himself), who interact like Wallace and Gromit, but look more like an ancient Dennis the Menace and Gnasher. They are up against the gloriously greedy and pompous French governor Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) with indispensable help from Goona (Maisie Williams).

Undercurrents of teamwork beating skill, and greedy capitalism exploiting sport, are almost incidental in the film’s main purpose of telling a good story with great British humour. (Non-Brits will completely miss the send-up of commentators John Motson and Alan Hansen, brilliantly voiced by Rob Brydon. Here they are named Bryan and Brian, something else which will mean nothing outside the UK).

But there is plenty of humour that surpasses borders, such as the scene where Lord Nooth wants his back massaged while reading a newspaper in a bath (yes, a typical Nick Park animated newspaper, with a few puns on the front, like the article on “Woad Rage”). No spoilers here, but it is certainly a scene to look forward to.

That ingenious Aardman invention springs some lovely surprises. Watch out for the way they do action replays.

Long-time admirers of Aardman will surely get the caption as the film starts, setting it in the “neo-Pleistocene era,” Nick Park, of course, making all his original characters from plasticine.

Fun as it would have been in cinemas, this where DVD/Blu-ray comes into its own, as you pause and rewind to catch both the wonderful, beautifully expressive detail in the animation and the crowd of visual gags, such as the detail in the beetle shavers and the toilet roll poster advertising “the world’s number two” brand. Pun-lovers can revel in such passing treats as the warthog-and-cart branded “Wart Removal” and the meat shop “Jurassic Pork.” There are still hidden gems I’ve yet to find, such as cave paintings of Gromit and the penguin from early Park movies.

The bonus features cover most of what you want to know about creating the movie, from initial ideas, through modelling and recording the voiceovers, to adding music and tweaking scenes while already in production. There’s not too much repetition between featurettes. Nick Park’s audio commentary adds good background, too.

This beautifully crafted “underdog prehistoric sports movie” is an endearing all-age film that eschews cynicism and revels in its inventive and very silly British humour. Recommended.

Derek Walker