Kernel Rating (out of 5): (4 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 89 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 7+. This clay-animation film from the company who produced Wallace and Gromet, ‘Chicken Run,’ and ‘Shaun of the Sheep’ has that same kind of dry British humor: we see dinosaurs buried after a meteor hits the earth and various skeletons; there are scenes of humans hunting animals, who always get away; we see the behind of a character when someone accidentally stumbles into his shower, and some implied nudity; a few bizarre monsters who may be slightly scary to young viewers, like a gigantic, pointy-toothed duck, a spider unknowingly used as a pillow, and some large worms; some bathroom humor, including the duck defecating all over a person; and some insults and rude language.
British Aardman Animations gives viewers what we didn’t know we needed: an animated origin story for football—soccer to us Americans. ‘Early Man’ is eccentrically funny and mostly warm-hearted, a story about embracing change while retaining your own identity.
By Roxana Hadadi
In recent years, we’ve seen films presenting origin stories for superheroes, pirates, and Disney princess villains. Why not for a sport? If all backstories were as charming and amusing as the one British animation studio Aardman Animations creates for football (or, soccer), we would be very lucky indeed.
Aardman Animations doesn’t produce films as frequently as Disney or Pixar, but that is because their stop-motion clay-animation style takes a phenomenal amount of time. When they do release films every three years or so, they’re often wondrously adorable, like 2015’s “Shaun the Sheep Movie.” “Early Man” is of that same ilk: a little strange and unexpected, but with gigantic heart, with affection and understanding for all different kinds of people and experiences. The messages about believing in yourself and supporting your friends are certainly familiar for children’s and family films, but “Early Man” has enough unique quirks to keep the film memorably off-kilter.
The movie focuses on a Stone Age tribe, who live in an idyllic, beautiful forest and yet who don’t seem to do much of anything. They spend time hunting rabbits, although they’re not very good at it (most of the bunnies seem to get away), and young caveman Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne, of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) wants more for himself and his friends. What if they banded together, improved their hunting techniques, and went after mammoths? Wouldn’t that be better for the tribe?
But Chief Bobnar (voiced by Timothy Spall, of “Alice Through the Looking Glass”) is resistant. He doesn’t think his tribe has the willpower, smarts, or gumption to pull off something like that—and the question becomes moot anyway when the tribe is attacked by a group of soldiers from the Bronze Age, who live in a city outside of the limits of the forest. While the tribe has stayed stuck in the Stone Age, the outside world has advanced, and now Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston, of “Thor: Ragnarok”) wants to mine their land for bronze.
With their bulldozers, their weapons, and their tools, the Bronze Age men seem like no match for the Stone Age tribe—but Dug has an idea. When accidentally transported to the Bronze Age city, he came upon a game of some kind overseen by Lord Nooth, of people running back and forth on a field, kicking a ball back and forth, going in opposing directions and trying to score against one another. Lord Nooth claims that football, is the Bronze Age’s divine game, and refuses to believe that anyone could play it better. So he readily accepts Dug’s challenge: If his tribe can beat Lord Nooth’s champion team, they get to return to the forest, which will not be mined for bronze. But if they lose, Lord Nooth gets the forest and the tribe has to work in those mines and live in the Badlands, which are fiery, desolate areas populated by strange monsters, like oversized worms and gigantic, man-eating mallard ducks.
Chief Bobnar doesn’t think the tribe can do it, and Dug, who doesn’t fully grasp all the details of the game himself, is having difficulty getting them all on the same page. But then they’re joined by a young woman from the Bronze Age, Goona (voiced by Maisie Williams), who is infuriated by the fact that Lord Nooth won’t let women play football. She will train the Stone Age team if they allow her to play in their big game—and under her tutelage, the group of rag-tag players starts to develop skills of their own. Can they pull it off, and change the Bronze Age’s perception of them? Or are they destined to be left behind?
Sports movies always follow a certain formula, and “Early Man” checks off some of those boxes: there are training sequences, various different montages, and the initial confusion of the tribe regarding how to play the game is leaned on for laughs. How do they kick the ball, and where, and why? But the film isn’t lazy with its humor; it expands the world with those strange creatures, it provides Lord Nooth with a greedy obsession with bronze that sets up various sight gags, and it does a lot with the character of Hogknob, Dug’s pet hog who gets into a variety of hijinks (like serenading Lord Nooth and suiting up to play in the game). Plus, if your children play football/soccer or if you’re familiar with the game, you’ll laugh at some of the sports-insider jokes here, like a gentle mockery of ball-hogging or flop-ready players.
Coupled with a reassuring message about trusting your friends and yourself, “Early Man” does good both visually and narratively. It’s a film with some strangeness to it but a clear affection for the game and an understanding of what teamwork can accomplish, and it will charm football/soccer fans of all ages.
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