Aardman Studios are amongst the very best the world of animation has to offer, joining the likes of Pixar (usually), Studio Ghibli, and Laika (Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings) in holding must-see status. Each new film by the claymation geniuses is worth your time and this is the case here with their charming mash up of cavemen and football.
Early Man tells the story of Dug, who is part of a tribe that lives happily in a protected valley, hunting rabbits far away from danger. Dug's world of stone comes crumbling down with the arrival of Lord Nooth and his army of Bronze-aided soldiers. In order to save his home, Dug must take on the invaders in the true arena of champions: a football pitch.
There is a good natured, sweetness to the film that manages to propel it forward, even when the comedy rarely reaches the heights of classic Aardman wit before it. The voice cast contain several lovely performances; from Eddie Redmayne's endearing hero and Tom Hiddleston's hilariously pompous villain, to fun supporting turns from the likes of Richard Ayoade, Timothy Spall and Rob Brydon (particularly good as a persistent Messenger Bird). I particularly liked Dug's sidekick and pet boar, Hobnob, a charming amalgamation of Gromit and Nasher and the film is noticeably diminished when he is absent.
The narrative is entirely predictable, partly due to being steeped in several classic films, from Escape to Victory to One Million Years BC. Aardman have always been heavily influenced by a love of cinema, with Chicken Run's parodying of The Great Escape and The Curse of the Wererabbit's illusions to Hammer Horror. And while Early Man is rarely hilarious (bar one sequence that plays out one of my great fears to fantastic comedic effect) it ambles along, charming audiences into submission. The level of craft hasn't diminished from the studio's work, with their visual ambition only increasing throughout the years. Aardman's dedication and artistry can be seen in full during the second half's cityscape scenes.
Early Man is also notable as it sees director Nick Park's return to the format for the first time in ten years. And if there is a slight disappointment to be found it is that this does not reach the dizzying heights of his previous films, particularly Chicken Run. But saying an animated film does not match Chicken Run is akin to saying a gangster film isn't as good as The Godfather. If Early Man falls closer to The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! than The Wrong Trousers that still makes it a mighty enjoyable proposition, particularly in its more random moments.