When you think about it, The Flintstones and Conan the Barbarian have quite a bit in common. Robert E. Howard set the Conan stories in a prehistoric era which, like Fred’s world, mirrors later eras; but while Bedrock is a specific stand-in for postwar suburban America, Howard riddled his Hyborian Age with counterparts to various historical societies. You’ve got the Aesir and Vanir, who stand for Vikings. You’ve got the Stygians, who represent the ancient Egyptians. And you have the central power, Aquilonia, which was based mainly on ancient Rome but which Howard could use as a stand-in for other societies – most notably in the Western-influenced Conan stories, where white settlers became Aquilonians and Native Americans became Picts.
And lo and behold, with Aardman’s latest stop-motion feature Early Man, we have a missing link between the Flintstones and Conan.
The film is set in a vision of prehistory where the Bronze Age is in full swing, but the main characters – Dug and his pals – cling to their Stone Age existence in an idyllic valley. The Bronze Agers, led by Lord Nooth, are cast as an invading force that seeks to plunder the cavemen’s home for bronze ore. In a very Flintstones-go-to-Britain turn of events, the two sides end up playing a game of football over the fate of the valley.
Now, the Stone Agers come with all the Bedrocky anachronisms that you’d expect from a bunch of cartoon cavemen, using small crocodiles as clothes pegs and large beetles as razors. But the Bronze Agers are a bit odder. They live in a wacky society that mixes elements from the Middle Ages, ancient Rome, the Vikings, and even the nineteenth century (with handlebar moustaches and a Queen Victoria-like matriarch). On top of this, Nick Park and his crew have included imagery straight out of fantasy iconography: the Bronze Agers are introduced riding armoured mammoths, and the first glimpse we get of their homeland is a set of rickety wooden scaffolding over a Mordor-like volcanic pit.
In terms of characters, the main conflict in Early Man is between the simple but good-natured outlook of the Stone Agers (English accents) and the money-grubbing, self-centred and bureaucratic ways of the Bronze Agers (mostly French accents). Robert E. Howard, who liked to contrast the decadent civilisation of Aquilonia with the noble savagery of Conan, might have approved of this story.
‘Course, I rather suspect that Asterix was a more direct influence on Early Man than anything written by Howard. But the Hyborian Age connections tickled me nonetheless…