We don’t get many sports comedies these days, and that’s probably because the plotting is a tad predictable. But that doesn’t mean the genre has run out of steam, especially when you put it in the hands of the folks over at Aardman animation, the studio behind Wallace & Gromit, Arthur Christmas, and more. Director Nick Park shows he’s lost none of the cheeky charm he’s brought to his past features, and while the movie may not have lots of surprises, it’s still an utter delight thanks to its sense of humor and lovable characters.
Dug (Eddie Redmayne) is a caveman who lives in a peaceful valley with his tribe. Although Dug dreams of hunting bigger game like mammoth, the group’s chief, Bobnar (Timothy Spall), thinks they should stick to hunting rabbits. The debate becomes a moot point when conquerors from the Bronze Age, led by the greedy Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), use their superior technology to take over the valley. Dug unintentionally gets swept back to the Bronze Age’s home territory where he learns that they worship soccer. Even though he has no idea how to play, Dug challenges Nooth’s team to a game. If Dug wins, his tribe keeps the valley, but if they lose, they have to work in the mines. With the help of a Bronze Age local, Goona (Maisie Williams), Dug tries to whip his tribe into shape and win the big game.
If you’ve ever seen a sports comedy, none of this should sound unfamiliar. There’s the team of good-hearted, scrappy underdogs led by a member who dreams of something bigger. There’s the crass, uncaring head of the professional and undefeated team. There’s the outsider who helps the underdogs because he or she wants a shot at the big time. There’s the important wager that will undoubtedly come down to a single point. Park isn’t concerned with rewriting these rules as much as he’s just using his setting to have fun with them. So in the middle of a training session, you can have a giant prehistoric mallard chasing a bunch of cavemen.
The underlying sweetness that comes with Aardman’s movies is present in Early Man, and it’s the reason you’ll have a big smile on your face throughout the whole movie. There may not be anything unexpected, but there’s no denying the goofy charm of Dug’s pet pig Hognob (Park) masquerading as Nooth’s manservant by giving the tyrant a back massage and “singing” while playing the harp. It’s ridiculous and silly, but it’s all in good fun. The confident personality of these movies is so lovable, and you always get the sense that you’re in Aardman’s arena rather than them desperately trying to win over the audience.
It may not be a revolutionary movie by any stretch (although the stop-motion animation continues to be gorgeous and packed with lovely little details, especially in trying to translate modern ideas into prehistoric “technology”), but it has a firm grasp of its own identity and tone, which makes for a powerful combination. It’s a movie about the importance of teamwork, and not being tied down to the mistakes of the past. Early Man is a funny movie with a nice message, and that makes it yet another winner for Aardman.