Nick Park’s Early Man is as beguiling as previous Aardman Animation films, finding itself through its cadre of memorable characters and impeccable production design. It’s the most fully realized and detailed world conceived by Aardman, with set pieces ranging from verdant forestry, ornate bronze asylums, and an ashy hell-scape. I was fixated by the density of Early Man’s design, as Park’s clay figurines move with such fluidity in these meticulously crafted milieus. Yet as exquisitely composed as every frame of this film may be, it’s in service to a rather rote narrative that never quite escapes its formulaic trappings. Aardman films like Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep offer clever subversions to their narrative trajectories, with Early Man frequently struggling to complicate its all too-familiar (though well-intentioned) ambitions.
A pacifist community of Stone Age humans finds their valley overrun by a Bronze Age army led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). With his tribe forced into exile, precocious young Dug (Eddie Redmayne) finds himself challenging the Bronze Age soccer team in a last ditch effort to save his home. As one would expect, the challenge is set and Dug is left to whip his ragtag tribe into shape. From “village elder” Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) to Dug’s pet boar Hognob (Nick Park), Park adopts a series of montages that leads to our inevitable showdown. With the aid of a Bronze Age merchant named Goona (Maisie Williams), Dug and his tribe present an obstacle to the Bronze team’s technical efficiency – Dug’s tribe understands the value of teamwork in a way that the Bronze team could never emulate.
That kind of synopsis may inspire a yawn and it’s the unfortunate reality that Early Man doesn’t quite upend its obvious narrative digressions. But it’s the casual asides, the curious non sequiturs, and astonishing reaction shots that inform and ultimately elevate this film to the heights of Park’s filmography. None of Park’s previous films have ever really been so dependent on its scripting, at least not to the point that Early Man does. This obligation to plotting may not be ideal, but it didn’t really bother me, as I was too delighted by the film’s visual bravura to take umbrage with it. And after all, here’s a film that values tolerance, empathy, working together, and learning from our history over petty selfishness and greed. Like with Paddington 2, Early Man’s a film that relies on familiar, silent-film era tropes to remind us of all to be a little better to one another. It’s hard to argue against that; more so when it’s this formally assured.