While we have animation studios like Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks reigning over the box office, I’m always floored by the care and craft put into stop-motion films from studios like Laika (Coraline, The Boxtrolls) and Aardman (Shaun the Sheep Movie). That isn’t to discount the work being done by those aforementioned studios, I’ve just been noticing that the homespun qualities from that of Laika and Aardman projects are just much more my cup of tea. You can even draw an aesthetic and narrative through line between all of Aardman’s projects. Always created out of earnest and with the need to entertain, director/writer/sheepherder Nick Park has been enrapturing audiences for years with his daffy concepts. Early Man is no different from the pack, even when its narrative moments don’t entirely land.
Dug (Eddie Redmayne) is an Early Man dreaming of a better future for his tribe. A future where they hunt bigger game than just rabbits. He’s just not okay with the status quo. Neither is the looming Bronze Age, ruled by the money hungry Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). Dug and his tribe are uprooted because they lay on a wealth of bronze that Nooth wants desperately. To win back his homeland, he must compete in a game of soccer against Nooth’s all-star winning team. Here’s the catch: His tribe can barely muster up the strength to get out of bed.
What I found so damn arresting about Early Man was its very admirable insistence that an 80-minute string of gags will be enough for the audience. On one hand, there are enough visual gags here for two movies worth of comedy. Adding fat was never always Aardman’s bag, they favor an endless barrage of jokes over settling down in some tired narrative. Their Shaun the Sheep Movie doesn’t even have any dialogue! We’re seeing an animation studio that has such a firm grip on visuals that their imagination frequently runs rampant while leaving the narrative behind.
That isn’t to say that Early Man is thin on story. On the contrary, Aardman is becoming way too good at finding a skeletal narrative and stuffing as many jokes as possible in without losing the audience’s investment in the characters. Dug may be a bit reminiscent of the vanilla action heroes we’re used to today but he’s plopped right in the middle of a universe brimming with so much life that it doesn’t end up mattering much. There’s even a minor character whose romantic relationship with a rock is able to sustain multiple set pieces without getting tired. That’s what Park excels at while others don’t. Just because we see a joke doesn’t mean we’ve seen the end of it. It could be repurposed later on and be just as effective. That’s even a quality that most modern Hollywood comedies can’t achieve.
So, that brings me to the eternal question: Why are these Aardman projects so damn good at doing what they do? Is it that they’re endlessly storyboarded and every facet is put under scrutiny over the course of the three-or-four years of production? Or is it that Park and Co. are just really that good at finding what works and what doesn’t? I’d say it’s a mix of both.
That seemingly tireless dedication to craft is also why I don’t think Early Man completely works. While Park has found an incredible backdrop for his shenanigans, I never felt as invested as I did in prior Aardman project. That has everything to do with the story. So many of the gags revolve around the misfortune of characters that they end up getting the short shift. The inevitable soccer match being the climax doesn’t even feel natural in the grand scheme of things. Dug’s pining for bigger and better things turns into a fight to understand and respect where he came from. Him getting swept up in Lord Nooth’s plot feels like it should be tangential to his growing as a character, but it ends up becoming the drive behind the story.
Even with all of the narrative conventions weighing on Early Man, there’s still a bounty of laughs to be mined from it. I mentioned to a fellow critic that Aardman knows just how goofy to make the faces of their characters. Even the most villainous of characters are portrayed as bumbling and daffy. There’s a certain sequence with a duck that I won’t spoil for you, but it had me bowling over in laughter for much longer than I care to mention. Let’s hope that Park and Aardman are able to make at least five more of these suckers.