“Early Man” isn’t exactly top-drawer Nick Park, but since that top drawer contains “Chicken Run” (2000), the “Wallace & Gromit” shorts, and 2015’s deathless “Shaun the Sheep” (which Park wrote and produced but didn’t direct), the next drawer down is a pretty good place to be. And, honestly, the chilly dog days of February are crying out for a good, smart, silly stop-motion family film, the kind you can fully enjoy under the pretext of spending an afternoon at the movies with your kids.
The claymation seems a little crude and old-school compared to other films from Park’s Aardman Animations, but that somehow fits a story line about cavemen playing soccer. They call it “football” in the movie, of course; “Early Man” manages to be both very British and universal in appeal. The little ones at the screening I attended didn’t seem fazed in the least, but humorless historians may be bothered by the suggestion that Stone Age man coexisted with dinosaurs — for just a tick at the start of the movie — and also with a Bronze Age civilization that looks a lot like Ancient Rome.
Such proximity doesn’t bode well for the paleolithics, who are led by a blustery Chief (Timothy Spall) but whose youngest member, Doug (Eddie Redmayne), is the most adventurous and stout-hearted of the group. When their valley is overrun by effete boob Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) and his armored, bronze-mining minions, Doug manages to sneak into the enemy’s city and witness the cult of football. A challenge is laid down: the cavemen vs. the superior civilization’s elite squad for possession of the valley.
Problem: Doug and friends have never played the game, despite cave paintings indicating that their tribe invented it millennia back but gave up because they were so bad at it. The expected training montages and inspiring underdog speeches ensue, made not only bearable but genuinely funny by the voice cast’s way with their lines, Park’s sense of crack comic timing, and a script that achieves near-“Rocky and Bullwinkle” levels of cleverness, wordplay, and bad puns. (“Eat up, you haven’t finished your primordial soup.”) When all else fails, “Early Man” resorts to that foolproof comic device: a giant, man-eating, prehistoric duck.
Everyone seems to be having a grand time. In addition to Redmayne, Spall, and Hiddleston, Maisie Williams — Arya of “Game of Thrones” — turns up as a team coach and potential love interest for Doug, and the invaluable Rob Brydon (“The Trip” movies with Steve Coogan) contributes at least three voices, including that of an addled and very funny message bird. (The actor is to this movie what Harry Shearer is to “The Simpsons” — a gifted utility player.)
Director Park himself voices the role — oinks would be more precise — of Hognob, Doug’s faithful porcine companion and possibly the David Beckham of wild boars. “Early Man” builds to a climactic game that is both predictable and sneakily hilarious, such are the grace notes of slapstick and British football gags, the latter amusing even as they sail over your head. Best of all, the handmade aesthetic of Nick Park’s fubsy clay universe is a tonic in a soulless digital world.
“Early Man” isn’t the most original movie ever made, but it made me laugh and it sent me home with an idiot grin on my face. These days I take what I can get, and so should you.
Directed by Nick Park. Written by Park, Mark Burton, James Higginson, and John O’Farrell. Featuring the voices of Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Rob Brydon. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 89 minutes. PG (rude humor, some action, bad puns).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.