From the creators of ‘Chicken Run’ comes this new claymation film that follows a tribe of cavemen in the Stone Ages who are forced to defend their home from a Bronze Age army.
How to freshen up the tired underdog sports comedy? Add animated cavemen and a bunch of soccer balls.
Best known for his beloved Wallace and Gromit series, writer/director Nick Park puts a stop-motion claymation spin on an uplifting Bad News Bears-style tale in Early Man (★★★ out of four; rated PG; in theaters Feb. 16). Featuring an impressive voice cast, a clever script, an abundance of pig puns and a duck the size of a T. Rex, the film treads familiar ground by pitting a bunch of Davids vs. egotistical Goliaths on the soccer pitch. But it does so in such a supremely quirky and earnestly heartwarming fashion that it’s hard not to be charmed.
Young Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his boar best friend Hognob (with grunts courtesy of Park) are part of a tight-knit group of prehistoric people who live in a lush green valley — located “near” Manchester, England — that’s surrounded by the Badlands, an apocalyptic place with volcanoes and bad weather that’s best to avoid.
The cavemen’s quaint rabbit-hunting is upended with the arrival of a bunch of armored mammoths and a more modern army led by the pompous Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), who trumpets that the Age of Stone is over and now it’s all about the Age of Bronze. After Dug and his fellow valley dwellers are kicked out, our hero challenges Nooth’s elite soccer squad, Real Bronzio, to a match where a win means getting their homes back and a loss will lead them to work in the mines.
Since we’re already on an alternate-history bent, it turns out Dug’s ancestors actually invented the game (these being early Brits, they actually call it football), though the cavemen aren’t nearly as skilled as their cocky, upper-crust opponents. Thankfully, the good guys are whipped into shape by talented city girl Goona (Maisie Williams), who’s long wanted to play on the “sacred turf” but has been stymied by Nooth’s regime.
If not overly innovative, Early Man is at least a fun and family-friendly tweak of similar sports films, along with “slobs vs. snobs” comedies including Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds. The animation’s as good as you’d expect from the Oscar-winning Aardman studio: The facial differences between the more primitive-looking cavemen and the snooty Bronze City residents heighten the subtle class-warfare themes.
Among the voice actors, Hiddleston brandishes a French-y accent and hams it up the most as the lovably over-the-top Nooth. Redmayne’s Dug is sufficiently goofy; Richard Ayoade plays a cave dude who’s continually embarrassed by his mom; and Rob Brydon’s the MVP playing three different roles: a messenger bird who parrots orders to Nooth from the queen, as well as two hilarious soccer commentators.
Like Wallace and Gromit and other Aardman projects, Early Man is super-duper British in its gags and references, including a nod to the famous Manchester United soccer team. Even for those non-Anglophiles, plenty of laughs will land for parents, while the little ones who don’t get soccer jokes have the funny-faced cavemen, and especially scene-stealing Hognob, who gets mistaken for Nooth’s personal masseuse.
It’s one witty bit among many that brings home the bacon.
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