The thumbs of Aardman Animation work as effectively on the inner child as they work on the clay that gives their famous characters life. Early Man is not quite on a par with the studio's Wallace and Gromit films. But what is? The moment the opening credits begin, you know you are back in the company of old friends. It is, we are told, the Neo-Pleistocene era? Get it? Pleistocene? Plasticine? Oh please yourself. If you're not up for that sort of pun you're at the wrong film.
A group of lovable cavemen are left stranded in a fecund valley after a volcanic eruption. Our predictably plucky hero Dug (Eddie Redmayne), friend to a pig called Hognob, spends his time hunting for rabbits and tolerating an assortment of useless pals. Life changes when forces from the surrounding Bronze Age – some inexplicably French – arrive to strip the land of semi-precious metal. The tribe are locked up in a detention camp and await extinction. Then a mad scheme emerges. They challenge the pompous Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), ruler of the Bronze Age city, to a game of football. If they win then they will be set free.
Note the in-house gag here. Whereas Aardman's first theatrical feature, Chicken Run, was a variation on The Great Escape, the new film takes its inspiration from John Huston's famously terrible Escape to Victory. There are at least two further jokes that depend on cultural references few viewers under the age of 50 will appreciate. (Do you remember the Mud fans' dance on Top of the Pops? Do you recall a table football game called Striker?)
Early Man does, however, move at such a pace and is so stuffed with cosy charm that no decent person of any age will worry about such indulgence. Look closely and you will see evidence of CGI wallpapering in the crowd sequences, but Aardman's work retains the homemade feel that began winning fans 40 years ago. It cheers you up simply to know they still exist.