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The gently amusing "Early Man" showcases Nick Park's offbeat humor

If just hearing animator Nick Park's name doesn't bring an anticipatory smile to your face, watching a few minutes of the thoroughly amusing "Early Man" will do the trick.

A kind of caliph of claymation best known as the creative force behind the comical cheese-loving duo of Wallace and Gromit, director Park has won four animation Oscars, including best feature for "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." "Early Man," a droll romp through prehistoric times, filtered through Park's beyond antic imagination, marks his first time directing a feature solo.

It’s a project he has been working on since 2010; it's not that Park is unusually slow, it’s that stop-motion animation is an especially labor-intensive process. Costar Tom Hiddleston, for instance, spent 16 months voicing the film's villain, and Park has said that creating a minute a week of footage is considered really speeding along.

That long gestation period, however, allows for polishing the material and making sure the jokes are right, and "Early Man," written by Mark Burton and James Higginson from a story by Burton and Park, covers the waterfront with its mixture of silly and sophisticated, puns and slapstick and everything in between.

It benefits, as Park's Wallace and Gromit work did, from the director's delicate comic imagination, his unforced but unerring instinct for what will make us laugh and laugh again.

Befitting stop-motion animation's venerable history — it's the way Willis O'Brien animated the original King Kong — "Early Man's" story makes the most of taking place in a wacky mashup of prehistoric eras, starting with a series of opening titles that read, in order, "One Million B.C.," "Earth," "Near Manchester."

The film's setting makes for site-specific jokes, such as one character chastising another, "You haven't eaten your primordial soup," but also allows for a plot that gently passes on contemporary lessons about the value of fairness, inclusion and cooperation.

"Early Man" begins with a prologue showing how the first humans, using a round rock that broke off from the meteor that put the dinosaurs out of business, began playing "the beautiful game" of football (soccer to us), immortalized it in cave paintings and then gradually forgot all about it.

Next, we meet caveman Dug (engagingly voiced by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne), whose best friend is a sensible pig named Hognob (those amusing grunts are voiced by Park himself).

Dug's cheerfully inept tribe lives in Happy Valley and hunts rabbit, but he has ambitions to go after bigger game. Told by his gray-haired chief (wonderfully voiced by Timothy Spall) that in his zeal to get going he's waking everyone up too early, the bright-eyed Dug fires back, "But we're early man." Yes, it's that kind of film.

Dug's tribe could have gone on like this forever, but all of a sudden, they have an ominous interaction with the future. They're invaded by metal-clad warriors looking like refugees from Mad Max. "The age of stone is over,” they are ominously told. "Long live the age of bronze."

Making this pronouncement is officious Lord Nooth, the governor of the area's spiffy bronze age town, who's played by Hiddleston like a foppish, money-hungry Roman provincial functionary with a truly eccentric accent.

Lord Nooth's pecuniary schemes include staging football matches on the "sacred turf" of the town's enormous coliseum, where his pampered Real Bronzio team, the best players in the known and unknown world, take on all comers.

One thing comically leads to another, and soon Dug is forming a team, mockingly called the Brutes, and challenging Real Bronzio to a game to determine the ownership of Happy Valley.

Underdogs though they may be, the Brutes turn out to have some advantages. They enlist Goona ("Game of Thrones’" Maisie Williams), a football whiz barred from the sacred turf because she's a girl, and she reminds them that Real Bronzio "may be great, but they're not a team. We've got each other."

The fun of "Early Man" is not only with the main plot but the stuff around the edges as well, such as the wacky Message Bird (Rob Brydon) that records replies to be conveyed directly to dreaded Queen Oofeefa (the veteran Miriam Margolyes).

Or the reaction of a character when he comes across the latest bronze age invention, sliced bread. "Wow," the gent enthuses. "This is the best thing since ... well, ever!"

If you have a weakness for this kind of thing, you'll be reluctant to leave your seat when "Early Man" ends, and you'll be rewarded with the sight of two small dinosaurs at the close of the credits, named Ray and Harry as a playful tribute to the late Ray Harryhausen, one of the great masters of stop motion.

There's no doubt Harryhausen would be amused, and if you like to smile, chances are you will as well.

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'Early Man'

Rating: PG, for rude humor and some action

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

Playing: In general release

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

@KennethTuran

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