“Early Man”



            Here's an animated prehistoric tale with a bit of whimsy, and some cheeky British humor.  The voices also feature some “A” list English actors, which helps lend some heft to an otherwise flighty piece of fluff, and brings to life the quirky stop-motion claymation figures.

            First, we have a Neanderthal sequence where the doomed humanoids kick around a hot metor until they invent...soccer (or football, as it is known in most of the rest of the world).  They even draw some crude sketches of themselves on their cave walls:  the first sports section. Then the “big one” hits, blasting away all life on earth (except the cockroaches, of course).  Several ages later, “Early Man” is in the Stone Age.  Our little tribe enjoys rabbit hunting.  (Though the bunnies turn out to be pretty clever themselves.)

            Dug (the voice of Eddie Redmayne) is the main character, and he keeps suggesting that the tribe might want to try hunting something bigger---like wooly mammoths, for instance.  But their chief, Bobnar (the voice of Timonty Stall), likes to stay true to their traditions.  The problem is, the world has changed around them and they don't even realize it.

            Suddenly their peaceful little valley is invaded by giants from the Bronze Age.  Well, actually, they aren't giants, but they build giant machines for themselves.  And they speak with French accents (nothing like reviving an ancient enmity, even in jest).  Their leader, Lord Nooth (the voice of Tom Hiddleston), is imperious, condescending, and merciless, which of course makes him the perfect foil.  Our little band of cavemen, including their pet pig, Hognob (grunts voiced by Director Nick Park) are all captured and imprisoned, awaiting sentencing to the bronze mines, where they will probably work like slaves and be driven to an early demise.

            But wait, there's a chance they might win their freedom:  if they are able to win the big soccer game, and defeat the undefeated Bronze Age team.  The trouble is, our cavemen have forgotten how to play the sport.  But Dug points to the crude cave drawings they all remember, and inspires them to at least try to field a team, even if their chances of winning are about like the Jamaican bobsled team in the winter Olympics.

            The breakthrough comes when Dug meets Goona (the voice of Maisie Williams), an inhabitant of the Bronze Age city, but who hasn't been allowed to play on her own team, because it's for men only.  But she's a great athlete herself, and quite willing to train our awkward outsiders, who find themselves literally playing for their freedom.  But none of it seems all that heavy.  There's a really amusing bit about a messenger bird who mimics (and yes, also mocks) the message senders.  We enjoy seeing the good guys win through teamwork almost as much enjoy watching the demise of the greedy and arrogant.  And the Queen Mum (the voice of Miriam Margolyes) is, of course, above reproach.

            It's cute and clever, but doesn't manage to achieve much emotional connection with the viewers.  Though perfectly acceptable for youngsters, it probably won't become a children's classic.  Just a jolly good little show.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association