'Early Man' is Well-Crafted and Clever

Despite strong sexual innuendo, the film conveys a message about working together to overcome obstacles.
Photo courtesy of Aardman Animation
"Early Man" is from the creators of "Wallace and Gromit."

“Early Man” is a stop-motion animated comedy from the studio that made “Chicken Run,” “Shaun the Sheep,” and "Wallace and Gromit." Set in prehistoric times, it’s a wacky story about a caveman named Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) who challenges the queen’s undefeatable soccer team to a match in order to save his tribe and home.

The story begins at the dawn of time, when cavemen and wooly mammoths roamed the earth. A Stone Age tribe, led by caveman Dug, make their home in the volcanic badlands and survives by hunting rabbits. One night, Dug and his tribe are driven out of their home by an army of men with bronze shields and pointed swords, many of them driving armored tanks. The intruders are the Bronze Age tribe, led by a villain who speaks with a bizarre French accent and calls himself Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston.)  Lord Nooth threatens the Stone Age tribe and demands that they transition into the Bronze Age.

A fight breaks out, and Caveman Dug accidentally falls into one of the Bronze tribe’s carts and is transported back to their city. Upon arrival, Dug finds himself inside a giant soccer stadium, filled with cheering fans. The entire community has turned out to watch this soccer game (which they call football, like the British.) Evidently, Lord Nooth’s Bronze team are the undefeated soccer champions.

Caveman Dug challenges Lord Nooth’s Bronze team to a soccer match. They make a deal: If Dug’s tribe wins, he and friends can have their valley back. However, if Dug’s tribe loses, they’ll be forced to work in the coal mines for the rest of their lives.
Lord Nooth accepts Dug’s proposition, thinking the match will make him barrels of money, since he requires everyone pay to admission to watch the soccer games. The only problem is that Dug and his tribe have no idea how to play soccer. Yes, the stakes are high. Dug must teach his goofy tribe how to play soccer, or else they will lose their home forever.

Appropriateness for Children

“Early Man” is rated PG with some rude humor, sexual innuendo and comic-style action. In terms of violence, a meteor falls out of the sky and explodes, burying people and dinosaurs in piles of rocks. A man falls into a fiery crack when the meteor hits the ground. The main character is hit and knocked unconscious by a large bronze ball. Soccer practice becomes dangerous as the Stone Age team gets pounded and crushed by their fellow teammates. In one scene, Dug’s pet boar is hit in the head by a ball, and the blow is so intense that it appears to be fatal, but he is OK. Spears and bow and arrows are used as weapons. In one scene, a giant prehistoric duck runs after people, kicking and snapping at them with his sharp teeth. Caveman Dug imagines his friends being whipped as slaves in a mine and realizes he can't bear the thought of them suffering. The cavemen catch a rabbit, in the hope of barbecuing it for dinner, but the smiling rabbit manages to outsmart them. Characters sneak into forbidden areas, attempting to steal things and are chased by authority figures. Teammates on the soccer team verbally mock their opponents and attempt to injure them.

Pushing the PG Envelope

Of greater concern is the film’s sexual innuendo, which is constantly pushed to the limit and played off for laughs. In one scene, a man pushes a door open, not knowing what is on the other side. It turns out to be the men’s shower room, and he slides across the floor and ends up with his head in between a man’s bare feet. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture what he sees as he looks up. In another scene, a naked man streaks onto the soccer field, with his privates barely covered by a tiny flag on a stick. A wall painting depicts a row of men baring their backsides at an opposing soccer team, as the narrator mentions their “many moons.” The chief winces in pain and then pulls a baby crocodile out of his loincloth. There’s also underwear jokes, with an elderly caveman who sleeps naked and is handed some clean underwear in order to get dressed. At the risk of sounding prudish, there is a lot of sexual overtones that are only millimeters away from being pornographic. The villainous characters (Lord Nooth and Queen Oofeefa) actually look like male genitalia. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s unmistakable. The filmmakers did this on purpose, pushing sexual overtones as far as they could take it and still get a PG rating. It’s hard to miss because it’s in plain sight.

On a positive note, the movie conveys a message of girl power. A female character named Goona (Maisie Williams) teaches Dug and his tribe how to play soccer. Goona dreams of being a soccer player herself, but girls are excluded from the game.  Goona is friendly and likeable, and it’s funny when she coaches the dimwitted cavemen, who don’t know the first thing about playing soccer. Goona also lets them in on a little secret: The Bronze tribe is talented, but are weak at teamwork. Now the cavemen can score by playing up to their opponent’s weakest link.

Final Take

"Early Man" is a clever, creative and comical movie. The stop-motion animation is well-crafted and fun to watch. One of my favorite things about the movie is the prehistoric versions of technology like the beetle electric shaver.  It’s an actual beetle that vibrates and buzzes as it shaves off a man’s facial hair. I also liked the “Messenger Bird” (Rob Brydon,) who relays messages verbatim and adds embarrassing information that the sender didn’t intend to convey. The voice work is excellent, with each character having unique comedic traits. Ultimately, “Early Man” conveys a message about working together to overcome obstacles. The plot is nothing special, but the story turns out much better than expected.

Writer Nicky VanValkenburgh welcomes your comments and feedback at nickyv@bellsouth.net.