One of the smartest things that John Lasseter ever did was to very publicly express support and admiration for the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I doubt that the strategic alliance that Pixar formed with Studio Ghibli ever gave him too much money directly, but it gave the studio all kinds of artistic “street cred” and also gave the critics a sort of permission to take Pixar a lot more seriously than they might have otherwise, and in return it offered Miazaki the vast resources of the Disney distribution empire when bringing his films to the west. Being the craven copycat that he is, I think Jeffrey Katzenberg was trying to do the same thing by forming an alliance between Dreamworks animation and the quaint but well respected British studio Aardman Animations.
Though it took them a while to break through to the mainstream, the history of Aardman Animations goes back to 1972 when they were founded as a sort of cottage studio that would produce low budget shorts for British television. Their most famous work from this era was probably the effects work on the famous video for the Peter Gabriel song “Sledgehammer,” but aside from that most of their work remained very small-scale and local. Eventually the studio’s creative control began to form around a team of three men: Peter Lord, David Sproxton, and Nick Park. Together they made a number of animated shorts (many of which earned Oscar nominations) and over the years they slowly began to earn a following in the animation industry and among people in the know. All that goodwill finally paid off in the late 90s when they signed a five-film deal with Dreamworks for $250 million dollars which would finally allow them to make feature length films. The first of these was to be a project that Aardman had long had in production called Chicken Run.
While people don’t seem to talk about it much today, Chicken Run got a lot of positive press when it came out in the June of 2000. Toy Story 2 had come out the November before and this was often held up alongside that film as an example of an animated family film that was going above and beyond what was usually expected from those kinds of movies. It’s garnered a Pixar-esque 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was also a surprise box office success: it took in $224 million world-wide, making it the all time highest grossing stop-motion animated film to this very day and that’s without even adjusting for inflation. That’s a hell of a lot of success, so why don’t we hear more about the film today? Well, I feel like a lot of the reason is that what people expect from a family film has changed a lot since 2000, and I suspect that if Chicken Run were released today the response to it would be positive but not necessarily as rapturous. There is of course something to be said for being ahead of one’s time, so I’m not completely dismissing the film on that level, but this is still something of a transitional film in the world of modern family cinema.
Chicken Run is essentially an animated parody of the 1963 classic The Great Escape except with the POW plant turned into a chicken coop and the Nazis turned into chicken farmers complete with references to specific shots from that earlier film. The Steve McQueen role here is filled by a rooster named Rocky, who’s voiced by the film’s only Hollywood actor, Mel Gibson. The Richard Attenborough role is taken by chicken named Ginger (Julia Sawalha) who is, interestingly, a strong female character. In fact I thought it was more than a little interesting that the film accurately portrayed the gender ratio you’d expect to see on a chicken egg farm with the hens vastly outnumbering the roosters.
For the most part, the film’s story leans pretty heavily on clichés. We’ve seen a trillion movies where an outsider comes to help a group of oppressed outsiders, bases his promises on lies, is shunned when said lies come to the surface, but then comes back to save the day at the last minute. The relationship between Rocky and Ginger is also a pretty standard “opposites attract” type thing. Of course if Avatar taught us anything it’s that a formulaic story like this still can still work pretty well if the execution is really above and beyond usual expectations, and while I wouldn’t call the execution here “amazing” it is mostly fun enough to make the film work. The animation here isn’t terrific, the characters move kind of slow and awkwardly, but that’s okay really. Unlike other forms of animation, you kind of want claymation to have a bit of a rough DIY feel to it. What’s more important is that you add in a lot of neat little details to all the sets and models; you want the world of the film to feel like the most over-ambitious fifth-grade art project of all time, and that’s certainly what Aardman delivers here.
I suppose I’d be more enthusiastic about the film in general if I thought its comedy was genuinely funny. While the jokes here don’t necessarily descend into the realms of outright stupidity, they did strike me as being kind of dopey. For example, Mel Gibson’s character is introduced with a really lame Braveheart parody and there are a couple of other Dreamworks style references for adults, but otherwise puns and physical comedy seem rule the day whenever the film is trying to be funny. I guess eight-year olds will find it funny. Anyway, Chicken Run clearly isn’t my kind of film, but it’s also hard to really get mad at it. It works well enough both as a parody and the animation is pretty fun, and since no one’s really proclaiming it to be some kind of modern classic that’s probably good enough.
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Chicken Run remains Aardman’s highest grossing film, but their most famous and lasting creations are almost certainly the characters of Wallace and Gromit. This inventor/cheese enthusiast and his long suffering dog were dreamt up by Nick Park and debuted in his in the 1989 short film A Grand Day Out and would recur in the short films The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. I’m not exactly sure how these films caught on with the public, but they did. One admirer was my sixth grade science teacher, who would occasionally pull out his VHS copy of the films and show them to the class whenever he thought the class had earned some downtime. They were sort of like the “Downton Abbey” of children’s entertainment: simple enough at their core to be liked by a wide audience but English enough that people could latch onto it and feel sophisticated for enjoying them. By the time they finally used the characters to make a feature length film in 2005, there was a whole network of people familiar enough with the characters to turn Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit into a box office smash to the tune of $192 million worldwide. On top of that, the film even managed to snag an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, partially because it came out in one of the few years when Pixar had opted to take a breather and not release a film.
Like Chicken Run, this Wallace & Gromit film serves as a sort of cute little parody of an older film genre. In this case they take on old monster movies, specifically werewolf films, but they also throw in a little bit of Frankenstein and King Kong. This time out our “heroes” have started working as “humane” pest exterminators, who go to various clients homes to capture the rabbits that plague their gardens (and it seems that the people in this village are positively obsessed with their gardens). The film’s villain is a dude named Lord Victor Quartermaine, who fancies himself a “great white hunter” of sorts, and would much rather just shoot the damn vermin. Between this and Chicken Run’s less than flattering portrayal of the poultry industry, I’m beginning to wonder if Aardman is funded in part by PETA or something. Anyway, after a couple of comic misadventures, the town’s vegetables start to come under siege every night by a gigantic “were-rabbit” and it’s up to Wallace & Gromit to stop it.
For those who don’t know, Wallace & Gromit have a dynamic that’s not completely dissimilar to that of Inspector Gadget and his niece Penny: one is the ostensible hero with a bunch of impractical gadgets, but also a blundering idiot, while the other is the secret brains of the operation that gets no credit once the day is saved. Aardman hasn’t done a whole lot to change the look and feel of the characters, they still have kind of weird freaky looking lips and Wallace is still voiced by the aged English sitcom actor Peter Sallis. The budget is lower here than it was on Chicken Run, and it shows, but Aardman is still able to do a handful of pretty cool claymation things. The film’s comedy isn’t much funnier than in Chicken Run but there are fewer moments of blatant pandering and I was at least slightly amused by some of the little puns and references that they peppered throughout the world of the film.
For the most part I think Aardman did a pretty good job of sticking to their guns and I don’t think they let Dreamworks push them around too much. They managed to make a feature length version of what they delivered with the shorts, but that’s not entirely a good thing. At their heart these are a pair of really slight characters, I don’t think they were ever really meant to sustain any kind of extended narrative like this. As such, there isn’t a lot of character development here and the story itself seems kind of low stakes and hard to really invest in on any kind of serious level. At the end of the day I think that these characters were really meant to star in short films and I suspect that the people at Aardman feel the same way because they’ve never tried to make another feature length film with the characters again even though they could probably get the funding if they wanted to. Instead, the last we’ve seen of the characters has been in a 2008 short film called A Matter of Loaf and Death.
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was a pretty big success for Aardman, but in retrospect it was probably also something of a peak. Their next film, Flushed Away (which was computer animated instead of stop motion), was pretty much a bomb and it led to them being dropped by Dreamworks. Since then they’ve shacked up with Sony Pictures Animation and have made two films: Arthur Christmas and The Pirates! Band of Misfits (AKA The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!). Both of those films achieved some moderate box office success, particularly in international markets, but neither of them had the success of their first two film in spite of having much larger budgets. They also haven’t really been able to recapture the imagination of critics, and I suspect that that’s partly just a matter of a certain novelty factor having worn off.
Unlike some of the other forces in family entertainment, Aardman hasn’t really been successful because of any attempt to make family movies deeper or more sophisticated. Instead they’ve mostly managed to get by because they had a certain quaint charm in their favor. In other words, their films are really cute. There’s nothing wrong with any of that as long as things are kept in perspective, and for the most part I think they have been. I found both of these films fairly amusing, but I wasn’t thrilled by either of them and I’m probably not going to be seeking out any of the studio’s other films any time soon. But I also don’t blame anyone for digging these flicks either because they are more or less what they promise to be: above average children’s entertainment made with a decent amount of skill and creativity. Next month I’ll return to the Harry Potter franchise and look at the two films which are said to have really set that series off on the right direction: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.