'Early Man' lands on low rung of Aardman's evolutionary ladder

Film premieres Feb. 16

(CNN) - Hailing from director Nick Park, one of the masterminds behind the stop-motion-animated antics of Wallace & Gromit, "Early Man" seems like a fertile idea. The movie, alas, turns out to be closer to a primordial mess, which -- in its mix of soccer and Stone Age politics -- registers several runs below Aardman Studios' usual place on the evolutionary ladder.

At a glance, the idea of Stone Age man running into their more advanced Bronze Age cousins seems promising, if only as an environment for visual gags. But Park and his writing team then morph that into a dispute that must be settled on the soccer field, turning this into a prehistoric sports-underdog story, which proves every bit as tiresome as that sounds.

"Early Man" represents Park's first solo directing effort, and it's also the company's first feature since the Wallace & Gromit movie "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" in 2005 (preceded by "Chicken Run"). The producers certainly didn't have trouble attracting a high-profile vocal cast, headlined by Eddie Redmayne as Dug -- the Caveman who leads his tribe into battle -- Tom Hiddleston as Lord Nooth, the bad guy that ousts them from their idyllic valley; and Maisie Williams ("Game of Thrones") as Goona, a young woman from the Bronze society who helps Dug, in part because she's not allowed to play due to her gender.

There is, frankly, a lot going on here, most of it plucked, awkwardly, from other movies: A little "Rocky" here -- including the protracted training sequence -- pinch of "One Million Years B.C." there in the clash of primitive cultures, and so on. (There are also several more bizarre elements thrown in that fall largely flat, such as a dinosaur-sized duck.)

Mostly, "Early Man" plays like an overstuffed episode of "The Flintstones," riffing on caveman accessories, as well as soccer fandom and hooliganism. On the latter score, there's a decidedly British streak to the humor that will likely deliver fewer yuks on the Yank side of the Atlantic.

Park has described his niche as being the little guy in the Disney-dominated world of animation, which provides rather amusing subtext to the film, which represents Aardman's biggest undertaking in its 40-plus-year history.

There is, still, something goofy and amusingly retro about the clay-animated look and style, from the marble-eyed character design to comic relief in the form of a domesticated pig named Hognob, whose grunts are voiced by Park.

Even so, "Early Man" is such a lightweight effort that the movie -- while perfectly harmless in terms of taking the kids to see it -- pales next to its animated ancestors. As a result, the best advice would be to yabba-dabba-don't.

"Early Man" premieres Feb. 16 in the U.S. It's rated PG.

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