In the three decades since Wallace and Gromit blasted off to a moon made entirely of cheese, Aardman Animations has charmed us with a menagerie of unforgettable stop-motion creations.
We have thrilled to a criminal mastermind penguin named Feathers McGraw, a flock of plucky Yorkshire cluckers determined to avoid a grim fate as ingredients for Mrs Tweedy’s chicken pot pies, a hulking were-rabbit and a conniving cereal killer called Piella Bakewell.
Oh, and a lovable sheep that bleats to the name of Shaun.
In Early Man, the Bristol-based studio turns back the clock thousands of years for a charming comedy of errors that traces the history of football to our club-wielding prehistoric ancestors.
The beautiful game turns exceedingly ugly in a knockabout script co-written by Mark Burton and James Higginson, which scores a couple of own-goals with groansome puns.
Thankfully, cute visual gags compensate, including a caveman hanging up washing using baby crocodiles as pegs and a butcher trading as Jurassic Pork.
Vibrant characters with fingerprints occasionally visible in the clay beautifully replicate the charm of stop-motion lands before time conjured by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen in King Kong, The Valley Of Gwangi and One Million Years BC.
A prologue set in the Neo-Pleistocene era “near Manchester, around lunchtime” heralds the extinction of quarrelsome dinosaurs and primitive humans in the impact blast from a falling flame-licked meteor.
New life sprouts from the scorched earth, creating a valley of lush vegetation where Chief Bobnar (voiced by Timothy Spall) and his caveman tribe hunt floppy-eared rabbits in blissful isolation.
The prehistoric posse includes Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his porcine pet Hognob, Asbo (Johnny Vegas), Gravelle (Gina Yashere), Magma (Selina Griffiths), Treebor (Richard Ayoade), Barry (Mark Williams) and his inanimate best friend Mr Rock.
Greedy Bronze Age tyrant Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) gatecrashes the idyll with heavily armoured troops.
Dug is unwittingly carted back to Nooth’s stronghold where he witnesses preening footballers Real Bronzio in gravity-defying motion.
Cave paintings suggest that Dug’s bloodline were the star strikers, defenders and goalkeepers of a bygone era.
Emboldened by this revelation and the support of pretty saucepan vendor Goona (Maisie Williams), Dug publicly challenges Nooth’s arrogant superstars to a match for control of the valley.
Early Man is my least favourite thoroughbred in the Aardman stable but Nick Park’s film is 89 minutes of undeniably giddy, crowd-pleasing fun.
Redmayne’s vocal performance brings sweetness and vulnerability to his hirsute hero while Hiddleston mangles vowels with villainous glee for the most exaggerated French accent since Monty Python And The Holy Grail.
The script runs out of puff in the second half and lacks some of the inventiveness and eccentricity that have distinguished earlier pictures.
Regardless, Park’s meticulously hand-crafted romp should score big with family audiences in the run up to this summer’s World Cup.