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edge staff writer


‘Early Man’ is right on time

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Animated movies have become been big business in recent years. Yes, the Disney juggernaut has been rolling for decades now, but in the past 20 years or so, we’ve seen an explosion of cartoon content – these movies have been getting bigger in scale and box office scope, with nine-figure budgets producing ten-figure returns.

But that’s not Aardman Animation’s style.

The studio’s newest feature is “Early Man,” directed by Nick Park of “Wallace & Grommit” fame. It’s another lovely example of the whimsical simplicity that marks so many of their works, short and feature alike. It’s got that wonderful stop-motion look, a dynamite voice cast and the signature cheekily innocent wit that has become a hallmark of Park’s work.

Dug (Eddie Redmayne, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) is a caveman, living with his tribe in the valley created by a meteor strike many years ago – a strike that led to those early men inadvertently inventing football (that is, the game that we Americans insist on calling soccer). Dug’s best friend is a warthog named Hognob (voiced by Nick Park); the rest of the tribe is a fairly laid-back bunch – good people, but lacking in any ambition beyond trying to catch rabbits for the evening meal.

This idyllic existence is upended by the arrival of a group of far more advanced Bronze Age types, led by the greedy and selfish Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, “Thor: Ragnarok”). Nooth is searching for new sources of ore to help make more bronze; Nooth’s tribe, with their primitive weapons and lack of killer instinct, are no match for the invaders and are driven out of the valley and into the Badlands.

Dug winds up being accidentally taken to Nooth’s outpost city, where he inadvertently finds his way onto the pitch at the outset of the “Sacred Game” – a football match. Desperate to save his home, Dug issues a challenge to Nooth’s football champions. If Dug’s tribe wins, they get their home back. But if they lose, they’re doomed to a life in the mines.

While his initial efforts to coach his friends prove less than successful, Dug soon discovers a secret weapon - a young lady from the city named Goona (Maisie Williams, “Mary Shelley”) whose dream is to play on the sacred pitch … and who is willing to help Dug and his friends in their nigh-hopeless pursuit.

While there’s no denying that Dug and company are outclassed as far as individual skill is concerned, with Goona’s help, they might be able to become a better team – and that’s their only hope.

Full disclosure: I was not expecting “Early Man” to be a sports movie. But that’s what it is. It’s in a weird context, but it is absolutely a sports movie. A group of plucky underdogs coming together to topple an overwhelmingly favored foe in a game played for the highest of stakes? TOTALLY a sports movie.

And a really fun one to boot.

There’s a wonderful juxtaposition here – the idea of Stone Age versus Bronze Age by way of the playing field is just a delight. You get a beautiful, genuine setting of the stakes followed by a first-rate training montage and an outstanding climactic faceoff.

Park’s unique style is front and center – his character designs are as endearingly quirky as ever. His usual sense of humor is present as well, with silly puns and sight gags a-plenty. And of course, there’s the character depth – there’s a feeling of solidity that you just don’t get with most animated fare. Aardman movies – particularly Nick Park movies – have a real charm that is all their own.

And it sure doesn’t hurt to have a talented voice cast anchored by an Oscar winner. Redmayne is just delightful as the cheerful, overly-optimistic Dug. There’s a gee-whiz quality to his performance that is an ideal fit for this sort of Nick Park outing. Hiddleston is outstanding as the bad guy, bringing a foppish energy that is first-rate. Even the inexplicable French-adjacent accent he puts on somehow works. Williams is wonderful as Goona, capturing the character’s spirit; she particularly shines during the training montages. There are a handful of other well-known British names involved as well – Timothy Spall is great as the Chief, for instance. Richard Ayoade, Mark Williams, Rob Brydon … the list goes on.

“Early Man” doesn’t necessarily display the complexity of some other animated fare. However, what it does better than most is serve as a film that manages to be aimed at children without ever condescending to them. There aren’t a lot of winks at the grown-ups here, but there don’t need to be. It’s pure and genuine and will capture the imagination of just about any child … and all but the most cynical of adults.

All in all, I’d say that “Early Man” is right on time.

[4 out of 5]


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