[Screen It]

(2018) (voices of Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston) (PG)

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Animated Comedy: Despite knowing nothing about the game, a young caveman challenges a more advanced civilization and their championship football (soccer) team to a match in hopes of winning back access to the valley where he and his small tribe live.
It's the dawn of the Bronze Age and Dug (voice of EDDIE REDMAYNE) is a caveman who still lives in the Stone Age with the rest of his small tribe. He thinks they should start hunting large game such as mammoths, but Chief Bobnar (voice of TIMOTHY SPALL) believes they're more suited for rabbit hunting and should stick to that. Their primitive world is interrupted, however, when Lord Nooth (voice of TOM HIDDLESTON) arrives in their valley and drives them out so that he can mine even more bronze. Despite the rest of his tribe fleeing, Dug and his loyal pig Hognob (sounds by NICK PARK) try to fight back but Dug is accidentally knocked out, and when he comes to he's inside Lord Nooth's walled kingdom.

There, Dug ends up mistaken for being a player on the championship Really Bronzio football (soccer) team and when his true identity is revealed, he challenges the champions to a football match. Knowing the cavemen don't stand a chance, Lord Nooth agrees to give them back their valley if they win, but if they lose they'll be forced into hard labor working in the mines. Dug returns to his tribe in the volcanic badlands and tries to convince the others to compete in the game that was created by their ancestors long ago, but has since been completely forgotten by their people.

In need of a new ball, Dug sneaks back into the kingdom to get one and that's where he meets Goona (voice of MAISIE WILLIAMS) who sells bronze pans by day and secretly plays football at night on the stadium field by herself. Knowing she'll otherwise never get to play in a real game, she decides to join Dug's team and teach him and his tribe how to play for real. With the big match coming up and with Queen Oofeefa (voice of MIRIAM MARGOLYES) arriving to watch, it's up to Dug and his ragtag group of players to defeat the champions and win back their land.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Have you ever wondered how certain things came to be or first started? Back in the prehistoric days before the introduction of the Internet, discovering such facts and bits of trivia relied solely on trips to the library, perusing one's home encyclopedia, or asking a very knowledgeable person.

Of course, one could always rely on TV shows or movies to impart such knowledge, with the caveat being that a certain heaping helping of artistic license could have been liberally applied to the facts. I'll admit to being completely ignorant when it comes to the origins of football -- a.k.a. soccer to those in the States -- but if one is to believe what transpires in "Early Man," it's directly linked to the demise of the dinosaurs.

No, this latest offering from the witty folks at Aardman Animations isn't implying that the ancestors of the cloned dinos in "Jurassic Park" were killed off by blows to the head with soccer balls, ingesting them or being beaten to death by outraged hooligan fans.

Instead, the opening sequence has the same meteorite that deals that fatal worldwide blow to the thunder lizards also create a burning small rock that's so hot the primitive humans find it too hot to handle with their hands and thus kick it around with their feet. And in 3, 2, 1, you can cue the football announcer to scream "Gooooooooal!"

Okay, so maybe getting one's history from a film comprised of thousands of still images of pliable clay figures stitched together to create the illusion of motion might not be entirely accurate in terms of soccer, history or science. But it can still be entertaining, right?

Well, I can easily say it's amusing most of the time and occasionally funny, but this is arguably the weakest offering out of the studio that brought us the likes of "Chicken Run," "Wallace & Gromit" and "Shaun the Sheep" (among others) over the years. The biggest issue and the film's weakest element is the basic story penned by Mark Burton and James Higginson.

While it might have sounded funny and brimming with potential during a pitch meeting, the notion of cavemen accidentally inventing football/soccer, completely forgetting about it for eons and then having to relearn it in order to compete against a more advanced Bronze Age team ends up being fairly limiting.

After that introductory meteorite bit, we're introduced to our small clan of Stone Age cavemen led by Chief Bobnar (voiced by Timothy Spall) who realizes most of his followers aren't the sharpest stones in the land. Thus, he doesn't pay much heed to the suggestion presented by young Dug (Eddie Redmayne) that they might want to consider hunting something with a bit more meat on its bones than rabbit.

Before that's settled, the Bronze Age interlopers -- led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) -- arrive and kick out the primitives so that they can continue mining for bronze and lining their ruler's pockets with that. Dug accidentally ends up back in their walled kingdom, is mistaken for one of their football players, and then challenges their championship team to a match in hopes of getting their valley land back.

And that's about it for the story. Sure, a few additional characters are added -- Miriam Margolyes voicing the Bronze Age Queen who shows up for the match and Maisie Williams giving voice to a young woman who ends up joining and training the caveman team -- but there simply isn't enough material and thus laughs present to carry the film, even at its brief 89 minutes running time.

That said, you do have to admire the dedicated and painstaking work of director Nick Park and everyone else who's behind the camera as this sort of ancient animation is nothing short of a true labor of love turning inanimate objects into moving cartoon characters. It's just too bad as much care wasn't put into building a more substantive plot in which to insert them.

To be clear, it's anything but awful and there are enough amusing moments to prevent one from ever being bored. But on the evolutionary scale of what Aardman has created over the decades, this one's a step in the wrong direction. "Early Man" rates as just a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 15, 2018 / Posted February 16, 2018

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