Early Man brings joyful energy for all ages to claymation style

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Early Man, directed by Nick Park, is a wonderful return in both style and form that reinstalls the childhood joy of watching Wallace and Gromit in the hearts of its audience.

The animation studio Aardman Animations, Ltd. returns with a fresh new look and a rib-splittingly funny story, with special effects that merit the painstaking process of manipulating dozens of clay puppets for a single scene. There are certainly no dull moments in the hour-and-40-minute flick, with its extravaganza of colors, sights and sounds.

The most surprising quality of Early Man’s cast is the amount of recognizable faces behind characters’ voices. With Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams and Timothy Spall, to name a few, the voice acting is top-notch and always enthusiastically done. It often feels like the voice actors are having just as much fun as the audience throughout the film.

Set in the prehistoric valleys of Manchester, England, around lunchtime, where dinosaurs are locked in fierce combat and saber-toothed mallards — the true apex predator of their time — haunt the skies, a ragtag community of cavemen live their simple lives.

Their layman concepts of hunting and gathering have transmuted into a deeply rooted tradition; like Elmer Fudd, their raison d’être is purely to hunt. But the runt of the litter, Dug, voiced by Eddie Redmayne, is already imagining his tribe’s ascendance.

Today, they hunt rabbits, tomorrow, the world, in the form of wooly mammoths.

Before this is able to take place, their world shifts, and it is out with the Stone Age and in with the Bronze Age, before the hapless indigenes can even blink.

Dug’s way of life is bamboozled by the arrival of Lord Nooth, voiced by Hiddleston, who has an insatiable desire for bronze coins and power. After successfully annexing the fertile valley, Nooth resolves to pillage its resources, and turn the tribe’s beloved home into a mineshaft.

Desperate to reclaim the valley and stop the nefarious capitalist, Dug fights back the only way he knows how: challenging the imperialist’s all-star soccer team to a game. And so, the first conflict of the Bronze Age begins.

True to form, the tribe is woefully unprepared for the matchup and Dug must teach them the old sport with the help of another oppressed youth, Goona, voiced by Williams. She is a natural with an undiscovered and unappreciated skill, and would give anything for her moment in the spotlight.

Together, they subject the tribe to the most rigorous training montage since Disney’s Mulan and whip the clan into “spiffing shape.” But, even with all this motivation and potential, not everyone is convinced this match will prove anything.

Chief Bobnar, voiced by Spall, is the mouthpiece for the “good old days.” Lackadaisical at best about learning the new sport, Bobnar is a leader that remembers the past he lost all too clearly.

He shelters this indulgent wistfulness and drags his heels in kind. However, stick-in-the-mud though he may be, Bobnar is a worthy foil to Dug, a youth fighting for better days to come.

Their struggle to reconcile the past and future is emblematic of the human spirit, which is why Early Man’s best moments are often ingrained with a sense of nostalgia these cavemen have only just begun to understand.

The story is in many ways a kid-friendly version of Jared Diamond’s documentary Guns, Germs, and Steel. Instead of bloodshed and crusades, there is soccer — albeit crudely appropriated from Dug’s ancient ancestors, since the kingdom has adopted it as a tournament-style game.

All the while the head of state profits and the aborigine suffer, imperiled by a warmongering empire that would rather exterminate than coexist.

Although, maybe life really was better when it was simpler and humanity’s pursuit of higher pleasures was unjustified for the greater pains they introduced. Perhaps the wheel itself represents humankind’s fate as it tumbles like a stone forever downward and the soccer ball is a spiritual means of redemption.

For a PG-rated claymation film, Early Man’s implications are not for the faint of heart. Once the historians and philosophers have been removed from the audience for heckling, the flick resumes its light-hearted tone.

Older audiences will find Early Man’s jokes childish but never juvenile. Park found a refreshing balance between comical one-liners and the Rube Goldberg effect of slapstick comedy.

Park's characters suffer all sorts of physical abuse that only clay has the power to withstand, cracking self-deprecating puns like seasoned comedians. Even Mr. Rock, who represents a true pillar of stability in the tribe’s early scenes, and is also just a rock, proves himself an enjoyable character. While others are similarly defined by a single trait, like punctuating each line with “champion,” or being an embarrassing mum, the humor never grows stale.

By the end, the audience will remember exactly why they fell in love with Aardman Animations’ silly antics in the first place. The charm has stayed strong through the years and does not seem to be letting up. Park’s latest film, like its medium, has taken shape, becoming yet another fantastic family film.