MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1hr 29 min
I shouldn’t have doubted him. Early Man is a Neolithic narrative shot through with the old-fashioned earnestness of all of Park’s claymation films. He’s taken a story of flint-wielding cavemen clashing with heavily armored Bronze Age warriors and turned it into a tale of an epic soccer rivalry between good stout English folks and fancy puffed-up Frenchmen. It’s just about the biggest cliché one could imagine for a British animated feature. And yet like any Park film, it’s pretty charming, the kind of kids movie that finds the right mix of slapstick humor and intelligent storytelling to keep everyone in the audience happy.
The hero of Early Man is Dug (Eddie Redmayne), a toothy, snout-nosed boy in a furry loincloth who spends his days hunting rabbits with the rest of his tribe, including Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall). Like many a children’s film protagonist, Dug dreams of something more, perhaps trying to hunt wooly mammoths rather than rabbits, but every time he brings it up, he’s told to keep his hopes planted near his feet. But when a bullying army clad in bronze armor arrives, Dug is forced to fight for his clan, and he quickly discovers that the invaders’ favorite form of combat is football.
That’s football in the English sense, of course, and this entire film (largely set in a blasted landscape blighted by a meteor strike) is jokingly set “near Manchester,” the home of two of England’s most famous teams. If you were being generous, you could call Early Man an origin story for Manchester United, just tens of thousands of years off from the team’s actual founding date. But that might be too generous. Really, all Park is getting at is his countrymen’s favorite way of loudly working through their feelings—by watching a soccer game.
My biggest problem with Early Man was something I’ve encountered with a lot of Park’s work—I immediately sympathized with the bad guys. Or, at least, I was energized any time they were on screen, and a little bored when it was back to Dug and the gang. The Bronze Age chieftain, the vain Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston), is a hilariously broad caricature of a snooty Frenchman, one step removed from those insult-hurling knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. His machinations to defeat the cavemen, and his ceaseless obsession with bronze coins, are far more diverting than Dug’s spirited efforts to whip his Stone Age pals into sporting shape.
But Park needs his film to fit a three-act structure, and so the viewer must watch the cavemen fail at football, and then get better at football, and then be good at football, and then have a crisis of confidence over whether they can play the big game, and then play the big game. It’s not complicated stuff, but it’s animated with such pizzazz (Park really shows off with the crowd scenes, which must have been immensely complicated to create in stop-motion) and told with the right blend of silly, knowing humor. Dug is achingly earnest throughout, but it wouldn’t be a Park movie if he wasn’t. Early Man is not so much a return to form as it is a long overdue comeback—and a welcome one at that.