“EARLY MAN” — 3 stars — Voices of Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, Maisie Williams, Nick Park; PG (rude humor and some action); in general release
It will be interesting to see the response to “Early Man,” the latest stop-motion feature from Aardman Animations. Nick Park’s effort has the same charm, wit and production as past films such as “Shaun the Sheep,” “Chicken Run” and the Wallace and Gromit series, but in this case, the subject matter might be a little too specific to capture young audiences — at least in the United States.
Set in prehistoric Manchester, England, “Early Man” opens with a funny prologue that tells the story of how cavemen used the same meteorite that killed the dinosaurs to invent soccer.
Flash forward a few years, and we join a clan of Stone Age primitives who are about to run headlong into the merciless advance of civilization. Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his peers are living a carefree valley life where the biggest issue they face is whether to graduate from hunting rabbits to taking on more challenging game, such as a woolly mammoth.
Then a rival group of prehistorics — led by a calculating bald buffoon named Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) — shows up to literally usher in the Bronze Age. Lord Nooth and Co. plan to banish Dug and his ilk from the valley while their more advanced civilization sets up shop, but Dug responds with a risky wager: If he and his Stone Age peers can beat Lord Nooth’s champion club Real Bronzio in a soccer match, they get to keep the valley to themselves. But if Real Bronzio win, Dug and Co. have to spend their lifetimes mining bronze.
From here, “Early Man” essentially turns into a sports movie, as Dug tries to teach his peers to play soccer (along with some help from a Bronze Age outcast named Goona (Maisie Williams) sufficiently enough to take on Real Bronzio.
As far as soccer movies go, it isn’t quite as wacky a premise as Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine squaring off against the Nazis in 1981’s surprisingly effective “Victory,” but it is filled with plenty of the same comic stylings and eccentricities that make Nick Park’s stop-motion work so adorable. There’s a running gag about Lord Nooth’s boss, Queen Oofeefa (Miriam Margolyes), who only communicates through a messenger bird, and another gag involves a Godzilla-sized mallard duck with fangs.Comment on this story
The only hitch is that appreciating and following “Early Man” feels awfully conditional on your understanding and appreciation for soccer (“football” outside of the U.S.), which may be a stretch for the kind of young audience that “Early Man” is presumably aimed at. Of course, this may be less of an issue for European audiences or kids who are already playing, but for the uninitiated, “Early Man” might lose a lot of youngsters. (Some parents may also object to the caveman context, though it never really takes on a religious angle and mostly focuses on high jinks and the soccer match.)
But even if the total package falls short of some of Aardman’s better efforts, “Early Man” delivers enough character and wit to deserve consideration. As with last year’s “Loving Vincent,” which was literally built out of thousands of oil paintings, stop-motion efforts such as “Early Man” are a testament to the kind of creativity that deserves encouragement.
“Early Man” is rated PG for rude humor and some action; running time: 89 minutes.