Perhaps you get excited when you hear that Nick Park, creator of the beloved “Wallace & Gromit” movies (plus “Chicken Run”!), has directed and co-written a new claymation film about cavemen, called “Early Man.” Excitement is the appropriate reaction, of course — you love Park’s distinctly British sense of whimsy, imagination, and puns — but “Early Man” is only kind of good, not cracking good. It’s missing that spark of genius.
It has an admirably daft premise, though. In the late Stone Age, a young troglodyte named Dug (voice of Eddie Redmayne) is living happily with his small tribe when their fertile valley is overrun by Bronze Age invaders. These haughty newcomers, besides having more advanced tools, speak with French accents and play a peculiar game they call “football,” which you and I would call “soccer.” Dug’s tribe is unfamiliar with the sport, but he makes a deal with the conquerors’ Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston): His best footballers will play a single match against Dug’s tribe, and whoever wins gets possession of the valley.
To summarize: This is a caveman movie that is actually a soccer movie. Sure, why not?
Park and screenwriters Mark Burton and James Higginson deploy numerous gags showing how prehistoric soccer is different from the modern version: a player being “suspended” means he’s hung upside-down over the playing field; the instant replay is performed by puppets; etc. They also indulge in some Flintstones-style, animals-as-appliances humor, notably a hilarious bit with a “messenger bird” (Rob Brydon) that memorizes and repeats whatever you say, including “Is it on?” and “How does this thing work?” and so forth.
That’s in addition to the soccer-specific jokes, which remind us that the film was made for people who follow the sport more closely than we do (i.e., Brits), though a gag about French sportsmen exaggerating their on-field injuries never goes amiss. It’s cheerful, gentle fun, albeit with a disappointingly pedestrian story, and the toothy, big-handed design of the characters makes them awkwardly endearing.
B- (1 hr., 29 min.; )