Feb. 14-- It's almost impossible not to be charmed by the claymation creations of British animation studio Aardman Animations-the creators of "Wallace and Gromit," "Chicken Run" and "Shaun the Sheep." While traditional computer-generated animation keeps pushing the technology closer to photorealism, the stop-motion technique of Aardman isn't going for realism, but expressiveness. It's incredible what a simple nudge to the clay can convey.
Their latest film, "Early Man," directed by "Gromit" and "Chicken Run" director Nick Park, is an age-old tale: It starts in the Neo-Pleistocene era, "somewhere near Manchester." While dinosaurs and cavemen battle over lunch, an asteroid hits the earth, leaving a lava hot sphere that the cavemen kick around, and soon, the beautiful game, football-or soccer, if you will-is born, and immortalized on cave walls.
A few generations later, caveman Dug (Eddie Redmayne) is living happily with his tribe in the valley, yearning for adventure while he and his pals hunt rabbits. He gets it when the new era rolls into town-the Bronze Age. Say goodbye to the Stone Age, because the might of metal is here, and soon the snooty, French-accented Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) is banishing the cavemen to the Badlands.
When Dug sneaks into the city, he discovers football and challenges Nooth to a match for his valley back. Nooth accepts, dreaming of the piles of "shnookers" he'll rake in from fans clamoring to see the match. That's when Early Man goes from "Clan of the Cave Bear" to "Bad News Bears" as Dug tries to whip his team of cavemen into football fighting shape, with the help of city-dweller Goona (Maisie Williams).
The style is all Aardman, their characters sporting pliable foreheads and adorable overbites. The story is light, and it doesn't go too deep, but it's effective and rousing, relying on beloved sports movie tropes. It's the funny little details that make the film as delightful as it is. Like most Aardman films, it is packed to the brim with visual gags and makes great use from the reactions of wordless animal characters. Dug's wild boar buddy Hognob, voiced by director Park, steals the show with his little grunts of surprise and plaintive howls. One sequence even has Hognob massaging Lord Nooth in the bath and playing the harp.
It's those little moments of the surreal that make Aardman films so unique. There are mallards the size of a T-Rex's, a spider covered in eyes, a "primordial soup" that gets up and walks away. One of the film's best gags is a message bird who delivers word for word, gesture for gesture messages between Nooth and the Queen that get increasingly hostile.
"Early Man" is a blend of evolutionary humor and a tribute to football all wrapped up in a story that argues for inclusion of all people and an equal distribution of wealth, all in 89 tightly-paced and efficient minutes. And there are so puns, so many puns. Truly, what more could you ask for? Don't run late for the fun that "Early Man" has to offer.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade, Rob Brydon.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.
Rated PG for rude humor and some action.
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