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EARLY MAN: Cavemen and ... soccer??

While everyone else was stampeding off to “Black Panther,” my wife and I chose an animated movie about cavemen and soccer.

As it turns out, “Early Man” also addresses sexism, dinosaurs, the Bronze Age, teamwork, carrier pigeons, cave drawings, discrimination, underdogs, hard work, hubris -- and one very giant duck.

I’m sorry to report that we were the only ones in the theater; this unique and charming little film is made with a lot of tender loving care, and it really deserves a wider audience.

Of course, the TLC claim won’t surprise anyone familiar with previous fare from the stop-motion masters at Aardman Animations: “Chicken Run,” “Shaun the Sheep,” “Flushed Away,” “Arthur Christmas” and their wonderful series featuring the dim-witted inventor Wallace and his long-suffering canine, Gromit.

“Early Man” is every bit as entertaining as those films -- and sometimes cleverer.

Let’s face it -- you’d better be creative if your movie is about Neanderthals learning the sport that is known as football in Great Britain.

It’s a tiny tribe of rabbit-hunting misfits who are none too bright (one of their huntsmen, after all, is a boulder); happy but hapless, they suddenly lose their bucolic homeland to an advanced race of Bronze-Age humans with a fondness for soccer.

So the group’s youngest but most ambitious member, Dug, challenges these conquerors to a soccer match, with the right to regain their territory if they win.

I know, I know: This premise sounds unworkable. But “Early Man” is all about tone, and director Nick Park -- together plenty of first-rate writing -- strikes just the right note in every scene.

It’s an almost indescribable blend of tongue-in-cheek lunacy with a guileless, childlike naivete. You never know whether to expect some piece of wild absurdity, a sports-movie thrill, a moment of inspiring and old-fashioned selflessness or some terrifically corny pun (“You never finished your primordial soup” is too good too resist).

The film’s closing credits pay tribute to stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen (“7th Voyage of Sinbad,” “Jason and the Argonauts,” “Mysterious Island”) -- and one could wish Ray were still around to see how gorgeous his medium looks in the hands of the meticulous crew at Aardman.

Vocal work here is strong as well, highlighted by Eddie Redmayne as Dug, Tom Hiddleston as the villainous Bronze leader, Miriam Margoyles as Queen Oofeefa and Park himself as the inarticulate but lovable pig named Hognob.

It’s a shame this enchanting and often very funny movie is forced to compete against a cultural juggernaut like Marvel’s latest superhero opus.

Oh, well. It ought to have a decent life on DVD.

“Early Man,”

directed by Nick Park

Run time: 89 min.

* * * (out of four)

Rated PG for rude humor and some action

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