The movie swears allegiance to that halcyon, carefree world, where humor is a matter of laughing with rather than at. The laws of gravity and the innate clumsiness of the human body are always good for a chuckle, and nobody really gets hurt. Dug (Eddie Redmayne), a friendly nincompoop with the usual Aardman features — a wide rubbery mouth holding a few blunt teeth; a narrow brow; wide, placid eyes — lives happily in an easygoing society with minimal hierarchy and ample leisure time. (The chief, voiced by Timothy Spall, is more camp counselor than warlord.) Dug and his pals are oblivious to the future and dimly aware of the past. Ancient drawings point to a vaguely recollected moment of origin, a creation story that the audience already knows (it’s the opening scene) and will eventually be rediscovered.
First, though, they must face the villainy of the Bronze Agers, soccer-mad imperialists led by a classic Aardman baddie named Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). He has what sounds suspiciously like a French accent, though he answers — mostly via bird-enabled instant messaging — to a very British queen (Miriam Margolyes). His footballers are cosmopolitan superstars whose skills are as formidable as their egos. For reasons too ridiculous to summarize (and yet also absolutely persuasive), Dug and his mates must master the beautiful game and face off against Lord Nooth’s squad.
Does this ragtag band of misfits, coached by a renegade named Goona (Maisie Williams), stand a chance against a bunch of hot shots with flowing locks, fancy uniforms, and all the talent and training that Nooth’s lucre can buy? You tell me. The genius of “Early Man” is that it cannot possibly be spoiled. The animation is foolproof in its combination of ingenuity and obviousness, and the script obliterates the difference between a laugher and a groaner.
You might believe that you are too refined to giggle at one even one not-too-naughty double-entendre about the fact that soccer is played with balls, let alone a dozen or so. You are so wrong. If you’re a Premier League fan, you might beat the script to a joke about “Early Man United” by a good hour and still laugh like an idiot when it arrives. I could write 500 more words explaining the semiotics of the big duck routine, and you would still be amazed by how brilliant and how dumb it is at the same time.
Just like us! Humanity, I mean, in our primal, primitive state, to which “Early Man” pays paradoxically sophisticated tribute. You remember how it was, before we got all snooty and fancy and mean: One of us fell down, the rest of us doubled over in mirth, and someone else made a picture so we could laugh at the thing all over again as many times as we wanted.