By Nicole Prieto | Staff Writer
With big-name stars — from Fantastic Beasts’ Eddie Redmayne to Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams and Thor’s Tom Hiddleston — Early Man is a family film about a clash of the ages heavily geared toward sports fans young and old.
In the Edenic, prehistoric Manchester, Dug (Redmayne) is just your average, ambitious caveman who dreams of hunting mammoths instead of rabbits. But his tribe’s complacent life crashes around them when Bronze Age invaders suddenly force them out of the sanctuary of their valley. There is only one thing on the mind of the invaders’ leader, Lord Nooth (Hiddleston): the valley’s abundance of bronze ore just waiting for him to exploit.
But Dug is not one to cower from challenges bigger than himself. A few mistaken identity hijinks later, and he finds himself on the hallowed grounds of the Bronze Age city’s sacred soccer stadium. (“Football” in-film, but for the sake of distinguishing from American football, it is mostly referred to as “soccer” here.) Suffice to say, Dug challenges the Bronze Age invaders to a match to determine the fate of his tribe and their valley. With the help of the athletic city pan seller Goona (Williams), Dug scrambles to get his family ready for the biggest (and first) game of their lives.
For international football/soccer fans — and particularly their little ones — this might be a cute enough movie to catch on a weekend. For everyone else, be prepared to be underwhelmed. The film is not exactly bad. The voice acting is appropriate enough, the stop-motion animation is clean, and the humor, while not great, is not tasteless. But its big-screen worthiness is suspect. As with many children’s films, there is a moral to the story somewhere, but it is obfuscated by the plot’s direction.
While we get to see a training montage of the tribe members getting better at the game, we are not really shown why they are inherently better at working as a team than the opposing Team Bronzios. Supposedly, they are more of a family than the egotistic members of the Bronze Age superstars. But barring a few superficial quirks, Dug’s fellow tribe members are not all that distinguishable from one another such that they give you that impression.
They seem to share a hivemind when it comes to learning how to play the game, and good luck to anyone trying to remember what any of their names are. The main exception is Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall), and his primary role is being the skeptical, overly paternalistic authority figure in Dug’s life. There is also Dug’s animal companion, Hognob (director Nick Park), who curiously acts more like a dog and less like a prehistoric boar.
The movie is ostensibly about following one’s dreams, but Dug’s biggest motivation at the start of the film is his desire to hunt bigger game. His serendipitous rediscovery of their ancestors’ ancient pastime is exactly that: something borne out of pure chance in the circumstances, not a desire he cultivated pre-invasion. Goona is the real soccer underdog among the cast, as she was excluded from any chance at playing for the Bronzios due to being a girl. Yet, even this plot thread is given superficial attention. The almost obligatory romance angle between Dug and Goona is there, too, but, whether curiously or thankfully, is also barely given screen time.
For antagonist Lord Nooth, his main vice is his obsession with bronze coins at the expense of sportsmanship. His slapstick dynamic with the powerful Queen Oofeefa (Miriam Margolyes) and her messenger pigeon is played for laughs. Oddly, at least until the very end, it is hard to understand why their dysfunctional relationship is relevant to the plot.
As a childhood fan of Park’s work on Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run, Early Man is a surprising disappointment by comparison. It has the characteristic claymation quirkiness of Aardman Animations, but it lacks the heart of a memorable film with universal appeal or truly stand-out characters. For better or worse, the film is for a very distinct audience. If you love soccer, great. If not, well, it might be a 50/50 experience.