‘Early Man’ Is a Prehistoric Delight

What a fun and inventive good time this is. “Early Man cheerfully travels back to prehistory to create loveable characters while satirizing the world of professional soccer. Yes, you read that correctly. It combines the caveman genre with sports in a mischievous but heartfelt movie full of fantastic sights and great one-liners. For younger viewers it will be pure silly pleasure, for adult audience members it’s full of warmhearted wit.

The story follows around a wandering band of cave people as they hunt rabbits and make their home in a prehistoric valley. Dug (Eddie Redmayne) wonders why the tribe doesn’t try and hunt something bigger, like a wooly mammoth. The group’s head, Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) dismisses the idea as another hunting party begins to capture a wicked local bunny. But a vicious warlord soon enters their lands, Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), a French-accented conqueror riding an armored mammoth from the newly-inaugurated Bronze Age City who seeks to take over the valley to expand his territory. The tribe scatters into a barren land strewn with dinosaur bones as Dug finds himself sneaking into the Bronze Age City. There he discovers that those of the bronze culture play a strange game, football. He sets down a challenge for Nooth, his tribe will play against the Bronze Age City team. If the tribe wins they can keep their valley, if they lose, well you can guess the rest.

“Early Man” is the latest offering from Nick Park, director of other claymation titles such as “Chicken Run” and a writer on the “Wallace & Gromit” movies for Aardman, the British studio specializing in this kind of wildly inventive animation (other titles include “Shaun the Sheep”). Like those movies this one is a pure enjoyment from the start due to its sheer inventiveness mixed with unabashed comedy. The opening scene features cave people fighting over a haunch of beef as an asteroid hurdles towards the Earth and two dinosaurs suddenly hug in sheer terror. A great touch is once the asteroid strikes a cockroach puts on sunglasses to enjoy the atomic view. The dialogue veers from slapstick to charming little winks (“you haven’t finished your primordial stew”). The animation is used to populate the screen with gags large and small. Chief shaves with small snapping crocodiles, a prehistoric caterpillar will make its way across the screen, and the Bronze Age City itself is a satirical riff on modern-day sports madness. Lord Nooth presides over the soccer games with large foam fingers while greedily watching as bronze coins are dumped into a bowel next to his throne. Does it matter that in actual history Dug and his tribe would never have made it to see the Bronze Age? Not in the least.

The beauty of this sort of animation is how it manages to create characters that are both goofy but endearing. This is the most heroic pack of prehistoric humans since “Quest for Fire.” Each one has a distinctive personality that’s a little modern but also hilariously Neanderthal. It feels like a real pack. Among them is Magma (Selina Griffiths), the flirtatious older woman, Barry (Barry Williams) who pals around with a giant rock with a painted smiley and Hognob (voiced by the director with eloquent grunts), a prehistoric pig desperate to be goalie. Parker makes them work because he doesn’t settle for just recycling old cavemen movie gimmicks. It turns the genre upside down by transforming it into a sports satire. The big laughs truly come from the Bronze Age City sports angle, as the local team is designed to poke fun at the pro soccer world. The main players have flamboyant hair with headbands, posing like super models before making a shot. The cave people turn from prehistoric dummies to heroic underdogs. We cheer for them because they represent most of us in the audience (according to this movie it was the early humans who discovered soccer anyway, in an accidental and particularly fiery incident).

American animation has become a timid affair, where the gags are shallow and dependent on recycled bits (fart jokes and dynamite). We are losing our satirical edge. Here is a British animated movie that shows us how it’s done. It’s fun and warm, but has a wicked good time ripping at jocks, French accents and still finds room for a great female character in Goona (Maisie Williams), a Bronze Age soccer fan who teaches Dug’s tribe the ins and outs of the game. It never resorts to being mean-spirited, but instead it celebrates the fun of making up this whole world populated with bizarre and farcical touches. When it wants to do pure slapstick it works with rowdy glee (a scene where Hognob finds himself playing the harp for Nooth is a standout).

“Early Man” is a memorable trip back in time with lots of heart and a sharp, satirical edge. It’s that kind of animated movie where the kids will love it, but an adult can walk in alone and have just as much of a good time, if not more.

Early Man” opens Feb. 16 in theaters nationwide.