Nick Park’s com­edy ‘Early Man’ won­der­fully full of dated ma­te­rial

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Aard­man An­i­ma­tions star Nick Park, the brill i ant mind be­hind the ad­ven­tures of “Wal­lace and Gromit,” tries to outdo the Flint­stones in his lat­est com­edy, “Early Man.”

The film — set at the ex­act mo­ment the Stone and Bronze ages col­lide — milks hu­mor out of pri­mor­dial play­ful­ness and prim­i­tive puns. On that level it scores big, but the film slightly misses the goal when it comes to the kind of hu­man­ity Park has pre­sented over the years through “Wal­lace and Gromit” of­fer­ings.

It’s only a mi­nor miss, leav­ing the movie over­all one of the most de­light­ful tales of men in an­i­mal pelts in re­cent film and TV his­tory.

It all starts a few min­utes af­ter the dawn of time, when a hand­ful of cave peo­ple have found a sanc­tu­ary in a lush val­ley sur­rounded by a no man’s land where gi­ant killer ducks roam. They live a sim­ple life of sleep­ing, hunt­ing rab­bits and sleep­ing some more. The only mem­ber of their group who shows any ini­tia­tive is Dug (voiced by Ed­die Red­mayne), who wants the cave­men and cave­women to think in big­ger terms.

That plan is put on hold when Lord Nooth ( Tom Hid­dle­ston) sends his more civ­i­lized fol­low­ers into the val­ley to start min­ing the bronze Nooth has used to be­come fab­u­lously rich. Nooth’s world is so ad­vanced they have me­tal weapons, wheels and soc­cer (it’s ac­tu­ally known as foot­ball by the Bronze Age denizens, but call­ing the sport that would cre­ate all sorts of con­fu­sion).

The only way Dug and his beastly side­kick Hog­nob can save the val­ley is for his group to de­feat Nooth’s su­per- tal­ented team in a win­ner-take-all soc­cer match. The only hitch in the plan is while early, early, early, early man played a form of soc­cer, the lat­est gen­er­a­tion wouldn’t know a goal from a gull. Their only hope comes in the form of Goona ( Maisie Wil- liams), a young girl from Nooth’s world who has been de­nied the right to show off her sports skills be­cause of gen­der bias.

Much of the hu­mor in the script by Mark Bur­ton and James Hig­gin­son (based on a story by Park) re­lies heav­ily on anachro­nisms for com­edy. Play­ing a game of soc­cer be­tween early man and not-quite-asearly man is the big­gest bit of twist­ing of his­tory, but it con­tin­ues from the use of a weird bug as an elec­tric ra­zor to gi­ant black- and­white bugs worn as if they were soc­cer shoes.

De­spite the fact this his­tor­i­cal twist­ing writ­ing has been used in “The Flint­stones,” there’s still some­thing en­ter­tain­ing about see­ing how the mod­ern

world is played out in the prim­i­tive world. It helps that Hid­dle­ston does such a clever job of giv­ing vo­cal life to Nooth that ev­ery­thing around him seems just a bit fun­nier.

The film au­to­mat­i­cally gen­er­ates smiles through the dis­tinct style Park uses to fash­ion his stop-an­i­ma­tion char­ac­ters. There’s some­thing both in­stantly en­dear­ing and quickly silly about the ex­ag­ger­ated fa­cial fea­tures and body shapes of the char­ac­ters. His style is as unique as any great artist who can be iden­ti­fied with only a few brush­strokes.

The style not only fits the flights of fancy his films tend to take, but is the an­i­ma­tion ver­sion of com­fort food be­cause the oddly- shaped char­ac­ters spark an im­me­di­ate con­fi­dence in the project. This trust the project will be good has been earned by Park since his “Crea­ture Com­forts” short in 1989.

The ma­jor­ity of his work has fea­tured the pair­ing of the good-hearted but slightly off-cen­ter Wal­lace and the ca­nine Gromit, who has been his staunch com­pan­ion through the best and nu­mer­ous worst times. This is the ele­ment miss­ing from “Early Man” that keeps it from be­ing as un­for­get­table as any “Wal­lace and Gromit” tale — the way Wal­lace and Gromit have been por­trayed over the years as two best friends who would go to any ex­treme for the other. This kind of pair­ing is rare in films es­pe­cially as the an­i­mated char­ac­ters are able to show so much hu­man­ity while get­ting across so much hu­mor.

Park tries to repli­cate that with Dug and Hog­nob. The pair do show a fun chem­istry, and Hog­nob has as much hu­man in him as Gromit has, but he and Dug never com­pletely bond. That might hap­pen if “Early Man” be­comes a fran­chise, but it isn’t quite there in this first out­ing.

Such an ob­ser­va­tion is more of a nit­pick that a com­plaint. Look­ing at “Early Man” as a whole, it com­bines weirdly funny com­edy with a sweet story about what it means to de­pend on oth­ers. This all comes to­gether so the homo sapi­ens of “Early Man” score plenty of jokes that are smartly dated.

LIONSGATE

“Early Man” is set at the ex­act mo­ment the Stone and Bronze ages col­lide.

LIONSGATE PHOTO

“Early Man” is made us­ing stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion.

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