What Aardman Studios does well, it does extremely well. The claymation, stop-motion achievements from the creators of Wallace and Gromit, as well as the venerable Chicken Run, are marvelous throwbacks in an age of unreal (or too-real) CGI, wild animation and dizzying special effects.
Its latest offering, Early Man, is an artistic achievement. Set at the dawn of the Bronze Age, it captures the idyllic life of a small band of Stone Age holdouts who are blissfully unaware that the rest of mankind has moved on. They're also blissfully unaware that their ancestors invented soccer. But when a marauding tribe of Bronze Age Frenchmen move into the neighborhood in search of ore, things go amiss. Only soccer can save them.
While hardcore Aardman fans aren't likely to be wowed by the dulled-down wit of Early Man, it's a far more accessible movie than even Chicken Run. Parents with younger kids or budding soccer fanatics will be charmed by the storyline. There's a positive message and an easy-to-follow, if predictable, plot.
Tom Hiddleston (The Night Manager) is terrific as the villainous Frenchman Lord Nooth, dropping an over-the-top accent that matches the on-screen swagger of the character. Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) does well as the title character, Dug, and Rob Brydon (The Trip) is typically on point as a pair of soccer announcers as well as a message bird. Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones) has an important role as the girls-can-play-too Goona, who rises to the challenge of the game as player-coach of the Stone Age squad.
There's a lot of Disney-esque camp here that ultimately can't be saved for real fans by the occasional snickering wit of the Aardman crew and Early Man doesn't seem to be sure what it wants to be, which is unfortunate. It's enjoyable, but it could have been so, so good.
+ Looks amazing, Hiddleston, Brydon
– Charming rather than hilarious
Directed by Nick Park
With Redmayne, Hiddleston, Williams and Brydon
Violet Crown, Regal, PG, 89 min.