Most people this weekend will be clamoring to see Black Panther. Honestly, I’ll probably be one of them. It’s going to be the first true blockbuster of the year. But there’s another movie worth checking out if you get the chance (or if Black Panther is sold out), the latest claymation family feature from Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, etc.), Early Man.
The silliness is kicked (forgive the pun) into high gear right from the off, as the asteroid that kills the dinosaurs (which also co-exist with humans in this universe; just go with it) creates a crater “Near Manchester,” where cavemen invent the game of soccer by kicking around the remnants of that still-smoldering asteroid, which has reduced itself in size and shape to a perfect ball.
“A few ages later,” apparently the dawn of the Bronze Age, the valley in the crater is a thriving ecosystem surrounded by “The Badlands.” In the valley lives a small cave tribe, including our hero Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his porcine companion Hognob. His tribe likes to keep things small and simple, hunting only rabbits and domesticating other animals for practical purposes a la The Flintstones (for example, miniature crocodiles serve as clothespins). Dug wants the tribe to aim higher.
He gets his wish in a big way when the greedy Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), a quasi-French governor, invades the valley to mine bronze ingredients from the area. Dug accidentally gets taken back to “Bronzio,” where through a series of slapstick mishaps, he ends up on the “sacred ground,” inadvertently becoming the goalkeeper in a game of soccer. When his identity is discovered, Dug challenges Nooth and Real Bronzio to a match, with his tribe’s home on the line. With the help of a plucky salesgirl named Goona (Maisie Williams) with football ambitions of her own, the tribe starts training for the climactic match.
The story is simple and predictable, and hits all the standard sport movie notes (underdogs, montages, that sort of thing), but there’s a lot to recommend here. There’s a high degree and quality of madcap antics, everything from pigs giving massages to giant predatory ducks. There are even clever sign gags (Jurassic Pork, Pelts for Celts, etc.) that would make the writers of The Simpsons grin from ear to ear. And while there are toilet jokes as well, they’re relatively few in number and they’re actually pretty creative and funny. Basically, there are great jokes for the whole family to enjoy.
There’s also a fairly decent satire on the modern foibles of the beautiful game to be had, as references are made to several key issues, like gender equality, pricing fans out of the experience, buying up superstar players even if they don’t fit a system, referees that like to insert themselves into the result, and flopping. Now, many of these jokes are very British, and won’t necessarily translate all that well to an American audience (which is true of a lot of the more subtle humor in Park’s films), so your mileage may vary. But at the same time, soccer is one of the most popular sports among youth in this country, and if there was ever a chance to inculcate some love of the game, this is a great avenue for it.
Everything else is pretty standard. The animation style is as impeccable as it’s ever been, and the emotional heft is sweet and accessible for anyone involved. The score is decent, including some songs by New Hope Club and the Kaiser Chiefs.
Early Man is a fun little diversion for adults and children alike. Beating Black Panther by a day, this is the first film of the year worth spending your money on. I’m guessing the kids might be itching to see a movie after the holidays, and this will likely be fun for the parents. At minimum it won’t be torturous. Like I said, the weekend box office will be dominated by Black Panther, but don’t think of Early Man as “Plan B.” It’s a very good movie in its own right, and worthy of your attention.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a soccer fan looking for a fun day at the movies? Does the idea of Eddie Redmayne playing a caveman make WAY too much sense? Let me know!