Beyond a joke: Secret storytelling in Early Man
Updated: Mar 17, 2018
One of my favourite things about Early Man is a clever piece of storytelling structure secretly hidden inside a hilarious joke. What appears at first to be a series of simple gags turns out to be clever story beats, showing how laughter - or thrills, or scares - can sneak in heavy lifting for your story.
Early Man is the latest stop-motion animation from Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park and Aardman studios. It tells the story of a stone age tribe, and it's as charming and side-splitting as you'd expect from Park and co.
When we meet the tribe of early men and women, we learn that they're not the sharpest flints in the stone age. The film introduces each of the tribespeople in turn as they do or say something stupid. It's a quick-fire succession of gags, which also happens to reinforce that the tribespeople are none too bright.
This culminates in a cut to the last member of the tribe, Mr Rock - literally a big stone with a smile painted on.
It's a funny gag, because it's an absurd and unexpected image. But it also does storytelling work, doubling down on the daftness of the tribe. They're literally dumb as a rock.
Immediately after this, the tribe set off on another comic set piece, a rabbit hunt. It's another funny sequence, in which they're continually and farcially outwitted by a wily bunny.
Once again, as well as being highly chucklesome, this sequence does important storytelling work. Their chaotic antics establish that the tribe also aren't very good at working together, which becomes important later as the film explores themes of teamwork and unity.
Finally, when the rabbit appears to have made a clean getaway, it gets knocked out by running straight into Mr Rock. Again, this is absurd and unexpected and therefore hilarious. It's also a callback, repeating and escalating the joke from earlier, and so is even funnier than the first time.
And once again it reinforces that the tribe are literally dumber than a rock.
So far, so rib-tickling. But now here's the clever bit.
Shortly after the hunt, the tribe are driven from their home by an overwhelmingly powerful rival faction. In the scramble to escape, the tribe look back just in time to see Mr Rock crushed.
The point of this moment is to show that the rival group is extremely dangerous and the stakes are life-or-death. But Aardman can't show an actual death - it isn't that sort of film.
So instead, they smash a rock.
The clever thing about this is it allows Aardman to kill someone - without actually killing anyone.
The tribe still reacts like a character has died, and the audience buys into the emotion because we know how much they care about Mr Rock. We're a little fond of him too - but not enough that younger members of the audience might have nightmares.
Mr Rock is a great example of a funny gag (or gags) disguising load-bearing storytelling work. The lesson is that when an audience is laughing - or excited or scared - they don't notice they're also absorbing important set-up or exposition.
I'd be interested to know if Aardman thought of Mr Rock as an amusing gag and then realised they could "kill" him, or thought of Mr Rock as a way to "kill" a character and then worked backwards adding the jokes that set up the character. Either way works. As a writer you can come up with a fun idea and then work forwards to see how it can help tell the story, or come up with a solution to a storytelling problem and then work backwards to seed your solution through the earlier parts of the script.
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