Aardman Animations, creator of beloved duo Wallace & Gromit, rarely puts a plasticine foot wrong. Its stop-motion shorts featuring a northern inventor and his indefatigable hound are classics for the ages, destined to be repeated every Christmas from now until the fiery end of days, passed from adoring parent to amazed child.
Then came Chicken Run, which laid the winning blueprint for nearly two decades of glorious, family entertainment, including the excellent Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Shaun the Sheep Movie. Even the foray into digital animation with Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas were fun, if forgettable.
With Nick Park back writing and directing, the studio is very much on terra firma with Early Man, which returns to the exaggerated toothy grins and northern accents of yore. It features a tribe of simple cavemen in stone-age Manchester, who are supplanted by a greedy pan-European bronze-age civilization who want to set up a new mine. Banished to the volcanic dead-lands, the cavemen are plagued by giant, aggressive mallards, prompting young Dug and his warthog sidekick to challenge the mighty force for the right to return to their homeland. The form of this duel? A nice game of football.
What follows is a goodnatured satire of both the beautiful game, and British-European relations, with the pampered Real Bronzio, all quiffed hair and puffed-out chests, being individually talented but inherently selfish. The cavemen, meanwhile, are an insular bunch, set up as classic underdogs, learning how to play through Rocky-style training montages. Unlike Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep, there’s a definite, slightly contrived lesson about teamwork, ambition, hard work and selflessness. But it’s so lovingly put together, so filled with sharp visual gags and cute cultural references, that a little moralising can be forgiven.
There’s a real sense of nostalgia to Early Man, a harking back to the studio’s early work – it’s not a far stretch to imagine Dug and Hognog as a prehistoric antecedent to Wallace & Gromit – and even the faintest trace of fingerprints on plasticine faces adds to the tactile charm. It’s also, perhaps, a little reminder that, amid the glut of blockbuster CGI animations, there’s life yet in the evolutionary backwater of stop-motion.