Aardman Animations is, along with Pixar, responsible for some of the wittiest family entertainment ever, charming both parents and children. “Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit” and its many spinoffs, and “Shaun the Sheep” — the TV series and the movie — are all delightfully clever, which is why the British studio’s name inevitably encourages high expectations. That may not be fair, but the company only has itself to blame if, measured against its own success, “Early Man” is such a disappointment.
In the grand scheme of movies for kids, the stop-motion comedy is hardly a stinker. But it’s also less fun and inventive than you’d expect, given the company’s stellar, Oscar-winning track record.
The comedy, directed by Aardman fixture Nick Park, centers on Dug (voice of Eddie Redmayne), a late-Stone Age cave man who lives in a lush valley with a tribe of bungling rubes and an adorable pet hog. It’s a miracle Dug and the crew have survived so long, considering they can barely hunt down a rabbit. So when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) — a French-accented nobleman who’s already enjoying the innovations of the early Bronze Age — rides in on a mammoth with metal weapons and claims the land, what can the more primitive group do but flee?
Nooth demands that his attendants immediately start mining ore. “Mine or what?” responds one of his lackeys, in a bit of middling wordplay that speaks to the quality of the comedy. There’s even a sliced-bread joke. Most of the humor revolves around how early man accomplishes modern-day tasks in rudimentary ways that evoke “The Flintstones”: using baby alligators as clothespins, for example, or blowing into the end of a lizard to make music (which doesn’t even really make sense).
The entire tongue-in-cheek premise of the movie is that soccer was invented during the Pleistocene epoch, when a meteor fell to Earth and a bunch of barbarians couldn’t handle the hot piece of rock. So they started kicking it around.
And that’s how “Early Man,” against all expectations, turns into a run-of-the-mill sports movie — soccer being the game of choice in Lord Nooth’s kingdom, where his team of arrogant hunks is unbeatable. Dug approaches Nooth with a wager: The winner of a soccer match between the cave-dwellers and Nooth’s players gets to keep the land where Dug grew up. Given that Dug’s compatriots have never heard of the sport, Lord Nooth is eager to take the gamble, and the highly publicized battle between the Bronze Age and the Stone Age commences.
From there, “Early Man” becomes an underdog athletic tale, going through the typical training montages — with some admittedly novel obstacles: molten lava, dinosaur bones and giant, man-eating mallards. There’s also a sporty savior in the form of Goona (Maisie Williams), one of Lord Nooth’s subjects and a secret soccer whiz who’s never been able to play in broad daylight because she’s a woman.
There are certainly amusements along the way, including a messenger bird who does extraordinary vocal impressions (Rob Brydon), and a couple of sports commentators who rely on puppets for instant replay. The visuals, too, are notable, especially when Dug first travels to Lord Nooth’s domain and stands in awe of all the marvelous technological contraptions.
Yet such diversions don’t entirely distract from a sense that we’ve seen “Early Man” before. Cheeky references to Manchester United and “Jurassic pork” only go so far.
PG. At area theaters. Contains rude humor and some action. 89 minutes.