On paper, there’s nothing about Early Man that’s particularly special. But paper isn’t the movie’s medium: It’s clay.

Aardman’s latest offering is an absolute delight, and, much like Paddington 2, is a prime example of the heights that children’s entertainment — and entertainment in general — can reach in the right hands. In this case, those hands are quite literal, as Aardman is one of the last bastions of stop-motion clay animation.

Directed by Nick Park, the genius behind Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, Early Man tells the story of a group of Stone Age cavemen being forced out of their valley by Bronze Age invaders. They’re outnumbered and outmatched, but there’s still hope. The Bronze Age folk are obsessed with football (or soccer, for us Americans), and so a bargain is struck: If the cavemen can win a game of football, they can have the valley back. If they lose, they’ll spend the rest of their lives digging for ore.

Obviously, this is a bit of a lark — though ball games have been around for ages, football as we know it wasn’t solidified until the 1800s. But Nick Park’s work has always possessed a distinctly English sensibility — you can’t imagine an American Wallace and Gromit — and football is part and parcel. With that in mind, Early Man isn’t an origin story: It’s a story about people trying their best. Specifically, it’s a story about English people trying their best, given the focus on football and football culture, changing ticket prices and all. And in the end, there are so many facets of football that are tied to modern technology — instant replays, to name one — that the anachronisms become part of the film’s charm.

Even if you aren’t a sports fan, Early Man has plenty to offer. Another Park staple is the kind of earnestness that could power suns, if only we could find a way to harness it, and Early Man is no exception to the rule. There’s no malice in the film, which is rare for a film that does have a clear villain, and even the cruder jokes are played for the attendant surprise rather than the gross-out factor. For instance, when one character takes a fall on a bar of soap and ends up sliding in between another character’s legs, his first reaction is to smile and wave hello, instead of immediately going after the obvious anatomical joke. (That comes next.)

Though the plot may sound plain, the film itself is anything but. To the contrary, it’s stuffed to the gills with the sweet, strange touches that pepper all of Aardman’s work. In a moment reminiscent of A Grand Day Out, the film begins with the extinction of the dinosaurs, and as the asteroid hurtles towards Earth, there’s only one creature that’s unperturbed: A cockroach, who coos in awe and quickly whips on a pair of sunglasses. And if you thought the penguin in The Wrong Trousers was a formidable fowl, just wait until you see what Early Man has in store. There are so many of these flights of fancy that, despite the fact that every plot point is visible from miles away, any sense of treading old ground is completely obliterated. Even the puns are a thrill, rather than dragging the proceedings down.

It helps that the voice cast are uniformly turning in some of the best performances of their careers. Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Dug, the lead caveman, is a joy, as are Maisie Williams as the Bronze Age football prodigy that he befriends, Tom Hiddleston as the greedy Lord Nooth (particularly charming as he plays completely against the type in which he’s usually cast), and Rob Brydon as a take on voicemail that’s easily one of the film’s best bits. Then there’s Dug’s loyal pig, Hognob, voiced by Park himself, easily taking his place in the pantheon of great film pigs alongside Babe and Okja. There’s nothing in any of the performances that comes off as disingenuous; as with the story, sincerity is the key.

Even the more nuanced points ultimately boil down to the notion that it’s important simply to be good to each other, and that teamwork can vanquish all odds. The Bronze Age league prohibits women from playing the “sacred game,” instead stacking the team with narcissistic bros who all buy into their own cult of personality. This is, obviously, their weakness, and it’s a nice point in a movie that also doesn’t make any fuss about the inclusion of people of color.

Maybe Early Man isn’t Aardman’s best work, but it’s so wholeheartedly kind and clever that it’s impossible not to embrace the ride — which is exactly the best mindset to enjoy it. It’s pure of heart and beautiful to look at, and is filled with infinitely more love and care than almost anything else you’ll find at the multiplex. What more do you need?

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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About the Author

Karen Han is a writer based in New York, via the midwest. She writes about film, TV, and Tintin, among other things.