Film Review: Early Man

The very, very B.C. 'Early Man' welcomes you to a wonderfully ditzy world of sports as played in the Neo-Pleistocene era by plasticine figures.
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Should you require a cartoon-feature recap of this year’s Super Bowl upset where the flawed and unexciting Philadelphia Eagles sent the puffed-up and mighty New England Patriots to the showers without their usual win, you might check out the football melee in Early Man where the Brutes go head-to-head with Real Bronzio.

The Brutes are the dirty underdogs you’re to root for—a mangy little colony of Stone Age stragglers which civilization ran off and left to their own meager devices. The elite, neo-epochal Bronze Age colonizers who invaded their domain and usurped their era are represented by the swaggering, assured Real Bronzio, a team led by a vain, hair-flowing, lantern-jawed hunk patterned after you-know-who.

The game is pretty high-stakes as these Age collisions go: If the Stoners win, the Bronze invaders will leave and there will be peace in the valley; if the interlopers win, the Stoners will become mine minions of the conquering football champs.

Throwing the match further off-kilter is the fact that the Brutes missed football practice in its entirety. All this is written on the walls in hieroglyphics: A row of cavemen mooning each other translates as this happened “many, many moons ago.”

Dug, who captains these underdogs and is boyishly voiced by Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, refuses to be intimidated by the warning on the wall. He assembles a ragtag team from his fellow hunters-and-gatherers to rise to the challenge. Coached and cheer-led by Goona (Maisie Williams of “Game of Thrones”), a pot-peddler and athletic feminist barred from the sport by her gender, they sally forth in their silly fashion. The M.V.P. and game-changer, however, turns out to be the film’s Gromit substitute, Hognob, a saber-toothed wild-boar sidekick who hangs with Dug.

As if he didn’t have enough to do in his solo directing debut, Nick Park grunts and growls out this porcine beastie as well. In addition, Aardman Animations’ star writer-producer conjured this Flintstone-y slice of prehistory, then passed it on to scripters Mark Burton and James Higginson to punt and pun across the finish line.

The Bronze new-agers have some hilarious heavies, most prominently Lord Nooth, who ruthlessly misrules the kingdom of Queen Oofeefa. Miriam Margolyes weighs in deliciously and imperiously as Her Majesty, but her thunder (and everybody else’s) is stolen by Tom Hiddleston’s Nooth, who speaks in a fractured French rarely heard outside of a Monty Python flick. He has trouble making himself understood. Once, when his guards capture Dug, he orders them, “Take him away and kill him—slowly.” The next shot is the guards marching Dug away in slow-mo. “No no no,” Nooth amends, “Take him away at a normal pace—and then kill him!”

Another happy invention is a message parrot transporting info from queen to Nooth and back again. He’s mouthed off by Rob Brydon, who dutifully repeats rude and inappropriate reactions to the messages, much to Nooth’s shamed chagrin.

One passing note: What the British call football will reach American eyes as soccer. That game was accidentally invented, according to this film, when a red-hot meteor fragment landed in a caveman village and they started kicking it around to one another.

Early Man wears well the many technological advances that have been made in claymation and stop-motion photography during the 28 years that Park and his Bristol elves have toiled in animation. It makes a real nice paleontological clambake.

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