‘Early Man’ rocks the Stone Age sports tale

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Brian Truitt Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

How to freshen up the tired un­der­dog sports com­edy? Add an­i­mated cave­men and a bunch of soc­cer balls.

Best known for his beloved Wal­lace and Gromit se­ries, writer/di­rec­tor Nick Park puts a stop-mo­tion clay­ma­tion spin on an up­lift­ing Bad News Bears- style tale in Early Man ( ***; rated PG; in the­aters Feb. 16). Fea­tur­ing an im­pres­sive voice cast, a clever script, an abun­dance of pig puns and a duck the size of a T. Rex, the film treads fa­mil­iar ground by pit­ting a bunch of Davids vs. ego­tis­ti­cal Go­liaths on the soc­cer pitch. But it does so in such a supremely quirky and earnestly heart­warm­ing fashion that it’s hard not to be charmed.

Young Dug (voiced by Ed­die Red- mayne) and his boar best friend Hog­nob (with grunts cour­tesy of Park) are part of a tight-knit group of pre­his­toric peo­ple who live in a lush green val­ley “near” Manch­ester, Eng­land, that’s sur­rounded by the Bad­lands, an apoc­a­lyp­tic place with vol­ca­noes and bad weather that’s best to avoid.

The cave­men’s quaint rab­bit-hunt­ing is up­ended with the ar­rival of a bunch of ar­mored mam­moths and a more mod­ern army led by the pompous Lord Nooth (Tom Hid­dle­ston), who trum­pets that the Age of Stone is over and now it’s all about the Age of Bronze. After Dug and his fel­low val­ley dwellers are kicked out, our hero chal­lenges Nooth’s elite soc­cer squad, Real Bronzio, to a match where a win means get­ting their homes back and a loss will lead them to work in the mines.

Since we’re al­ready on an al­ter­nate­his­tory bent, it turns out Dug’s an­ces­tors ac­tu­ally in­vented the game (these be­ing early Brits, they ac­tu­ally call it foot­ball), though the cave­men aren’t nearly as skilled as their cocky, up­per-

crust op­po­nents. Thank­fully, the good guys are whipped into shape by tal­ented city girl Goona (Maisie Williams), who has long wanted to play on the “sa­cred turf ” but has been stymied by Nooth’s regime.

If not overly in­no­va­tive, Early Man is at least a fun and fam­ily-friendly tweak of sim­i­lar sports films, along with “slobs vs. snobs” come­dies in­clud­ing An­i­mal House and Re­venge of the Nerds. The an­i­ma­tion is as good as you’d ex­pect from the Os­car-win­ning Aard­man stu­dio: The fa­cial dif­fer­ences be­tween the more prim­i­tive-look­ing cave­men and the snooty Bronze City res­i­dents heighten the subtle class­war­fare themes.

Among the voice ac­tors, Hid­dle­ston bran­dishes a French-y ac­cent and hams it up the most as the lovably over-the-top Nooth. Red­mayne’s Dug is suf­fi­ciently goofy; Richard Ayoade plays a cave dude who’s con­tin­u­ally em­bar­rassed by his mom; and Rob Bry­don’s the MVP play­ing three dif­fer­ent roles: a mes­sen­ger bird who par­rots or­ders to Nooth from the queen, as well as two hi­lar­i­ous soc­cer com­men­ta­tors.

Like Wal­lace and Gromit and other Aard­man projects, Early Man is su­perduper Bri­tish in its gags and ref­er­ences, in­clud­ing a nod to the fa­mous Manch­ester United soc­cer team. Even for those non-An­glophiles, plenty of laughs will land for par­ents, while the lit­tle ones who don’t get soc­cer jokes have the funny-faced cave­men, and es­pe­cially scene-steal­ing Hog­nob, who gets mistaken for Nooth’s per­sonal masseuse.

It’s one witty bit among many that brings home the ba­con.

Dug (voiced by Ed­die Red­mayne) leads the charge against a Bronze Age army in “Early Man.” AARD­MAN

Snooty Lord Nooth (Tom Hid­dle­ston) has a new masseuse. AARD­MAN

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