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‘Early Man’ review: Gentle charmer is cute and quirky

Eddie Redmayne voices Dug, left, and director Ken

Eddie Redmayne voices Dug, left, and director Ken Park voices Hognob in "Early Man." Photo Credit: Lionsgate / Aardman

PLOT A tribe of cavemen challenges a Bronze Age civilization to a high-stakes game of soccer.

CAST Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams

RATED PG (mild peril)

LENGTH 1:29

BOTTOM LINE Another gentle charmer from the “Wallace and Grommit” folks. Think chuckles, not belly laughs.

For more than 30 years, stop-motion animator Nick Park and his colleagues at Aardman Animations, the studio behind “Wallace and Grommit” and “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” have been providing droll British counterprogramming to the brassy American content that dominates children’s entertainment. Where American animations like “Ice Age” traffic in gaseous humor and disco-dance numbers, Aardman movies prefer deadpan absurdism, winking puns and the occasional literary reference.

A new Aardman movie is always great news for discerning parents, though perhaps less so for the children we bring along with us. Charming and clever though Aardman movies may be, they don’t universally hit the funny bone the way a “Despicable Me” movie does, or tug the heartstrings like a Pixar movie. And so it is with “Early Man,” another cute and quirky effort from Park and his Aardman crew.

“Early Man” introduces us to a caveboy, Dug (the voice of Eddie Redmayne), whose tribe of lovable dolts has forgotten how to play the sacred, prehistoric game of soccer. When a Bronze Age colonizer named Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) invades the tribe’s territory to mine for ore, Dug lays down a challenge: A game of soccer will decide who owns the land. Unfortunately, Nooth’s team, Real Bronzio, is a professional juggernaut, whereas Dug’s players are either dumb as rocks (one literally is a rock) or past their prime. “I’m an old man,” complains Chief (Timothy Spall). “I’m nearly 32!” Luckily, Dug meets a Bronze Age girl, Goona (Maisie Williams), who gravitates to the gender-inclusive cave team and teaches them a few moves.

Despite the tortured premise, “Early Man” has plenty of clever lines and sly jokes. One of my favorites is the housewife who struggles to describe a marvelous new invention: “Sliced bread! This is the best thing since . . . well . . . ” There are also nods to Monty Python, a running gag involving a messenger bird who acts out his messages, and a screwball sequence in which Dug’s pet boar, Hognob, poses as Nooth’s masseuse. All these moments are minor gems, even if cumulatively they don’t add up to the comedic megatonnage of one good belly laugh.

The animation is top-notch, as always — another aspect of Aardman movies that may not impress young viewers as greatly as it ought to. Whoever you bring to “Early Man,” make sure they’re old enough to appreciate it.

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