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Early Man is directed by Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park.

2.5 out of 4 stars

Early Man
Written by
Mark Burton, James Higginson, Nick Park
Directed by
Nick Park
Eddie Redmayne and Maisie Williams

At the beginning of Early Man, caveman Dug (Eddie Redmayne) lives peacefully in a valley with his grubby brethren, hunting rabbits while dreaming of nabbing larger prey. Their valley, rich in metal deposits, is sought after by the snooty French Bronze Age Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, a proud alumnus of the Inspector Clouseau School of French Accents).

Beaten by a superior army, the cavemen retreat, but Dug is swept away into the Bronze camp. There, he discovers their great passion, soccer (or as they say, football), and challenges Nooth to a match – winner takes valley. With some pluck, grit and the help of Bronze Age Goona (Maisie Williams) set to a montage of slowly improving skills, Dug's team faces off against Real Bronzio on the pitch. Who could possibly be crowned the winners?

Directed by Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park, who has four Oscars and five BAFTAs for his animation work, Early Man is filmed in his charming, signature stop-motion style. It's not exactly slick – Dug's hairs aren't individually articulated by a supercomputer here – but it's no less time-consuming, with 24 frames needing meticulous attention each and every second of the film's runtime.

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Like Wallace and Gromit, the film is also unmistakably British. The plot is almost entirely about soccer – no budding romance between Dug and Goona, no one quitting the team only to rejoin after seeing the error of their ways, not even one "You did this for a bet?" speech. Just a whole lot of on-field action. For those non-British adults watching on this side of the pond – never mind kids – there will be many, many questions about references to English culture. Indeed, Early Man is so stereotypically British, I was surprised there wasn't a scene midway through in which they all chased each other to Yakety Sax.

The film's 89-minute runtime doesn't allow for a lot of other storylines, either, so some characters feel wasted – most notably the supremely funny Richard Ayoade, whose Treebor has about 10 lines throughout. But there are still some laughs – plenty of good slapstick bits (Dug falling down stadium stairs over and over, his pet pig Hobnob giving Nooth a massage) and sight gags (the Queen playing a bronze vuvuzela). Rob Brydon voicing the messenger pigeon and sportscasters (imitating soccer pundit Alan Hansen – another British reference I had to Google) is also hilarious.

More than that, though, there's a quaintness about the film, from the animation style to the wholesome jokes – there's not much in the way of asides for the adults in the audience – that is refreshing for this pop-culture-obsessed animation era.

Early Man is a simple, straightforward affair that may leave you with an urge for a tea and scone – and a deep dive into Brit-centric Wikipedia.

Early Man opens Feb. 16.

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