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Aardman Animations: England’s Pixar?

Pixar might have surpassed parent company Disney as the most dependable name in animation known the world over (let’s forget about Cars 2 for now), but for the last 25 years, another studio has been quietly making some of the best-looking, funniest and most charming animated films to grace theaters.

I’m talking about Aardman Animations, the Bristol based animation studio best known for the loveable inventor/mute mutt pairing of Wallace and Gromit, as well as this week’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Aardman might not have the same production volume as the bigger studios out there, and their features are never the flashiest, but join us on our look back at their history, and you’re sure to spot a few under-the-radar gems and favorites.

Before the Movies

Despite having its first film premiere in 2000, Aardman Animations’ history stretches all the way back to 1972. Founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton started the company with the hopes of making feature films, but seeing as it usually takes more than two people to make a whole movie, they started out doing claymation shorts for the BBC, as well as music videos. Those dancing chickens in Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video were done by late addition Nick Park, who joined the company in 1985. Now, if Sproxton and Lord are to Aardman what founders Edwin Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith were to Pixar, then Park is most certainly Aardman’s John Lasseter, the creative voice that launched a mercenary studio into the animated stratosphere.

Park made his presence known in 1989 with his award-winning short Creature Comforts, which combined on-the-street interviews of random people with clay animated animals. The bit of anthropomorphizing fun proved hugely popular, earning Park and Aardman a BAFTA nomination and an Oscar for Best Animated Short. The piece was so well-liked that England’s Electricity board hired Aardman to do a whole advertising series using the same format, which became a smash success of its own over the course of a three-year run. And as if Park weren’t busy enough, he launched his most popular creations in late 1989 with A Grand Day Out, which was Wallace and Gromit’s first adventure. 
Dreaming Bigger

Aardman spent much of the early '90s continuing its success in short films, including two Oscar-winning romps starring Wallace and Gromit. Another project was beginning behind the scenes at Aardman, however, something much bigger than ads and shorts, but it wasn’t until 1997 that Lord and Sproxton’s dream of a theatrical feature took a giant step forward. In December, Aardman announced that it would making its first feature film with partner studio DreamWorks, which would distribute and help pay off those hefty claymation bills that accumulate when making a full-length movie.

Lord and Park were the leads on the film, handling scripting duties (along with Margaret French) and directing a voice cast of mostly unknowns. Aardman and DreamWorks must have known they were onto something special as even before their first joint venture was released, the two companies signed a $250-million deal for four more films over the next 12 years. That optimism proved warranted, as Chicken Run hit theatres in 2000 to critical acclaim and an overwhelmingly positive reception.

Combining both the slapstick inventiveness and clever wordplay of “Wallace and Gromit,” Chicken Run was a good old-fashioned prison break movie starring a flock of chickens looking to literally fly the coop at a British farm, with the help of a brash American rooster voiced by Mel Gibson. The meeting of across-the-pond poultry culture was a fitting analogy for introducing North American audiences to the British wonder-studio, and the result was $225 million in global box-office receipts, a fine return on a $45-million budget. It was nominated for best British film at the BAFTA’s, and would have been hard to beat for best Animated Feature Oscar—had the category been invented one year earlier (the first actually went to DreamWorks Animation for Shrek).  

Hiatus and Return of the Clay Kings

The massively supportive reaction to Chicken Run had put Aardman on the map at a global scale, but the studio was already gearing up for its next great venture. Revealed in 1999 along with their team-up with DreamWorks was The Tortoise and the Hare, a take on Aesop’s fables to be directed by Aardman’s talented Richard Goleszowski. The project was put on hold for two years due to script issues, so Aardman approached DreamWorks with their next idea. They planned to follow-up Chicken Run with something based around pirates, but their backers believed there was no audience to market swashbuckling to, and Aardman was asked to modernize the project.

The reworking was also put on hold for what was always going to be Aardman’s biggest event: a “Wallace and Gromit” movie. Envisioned by Park and co-director Steve box as the “first vegetarian horror film,” the dynamic duo would spend their first theatrical outing hunting an oversized, veggie-devouring monstrosity in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Although released five years after first bringing their clay creations to theaters, Wallace and Gromit were met with as much fanfare as their feathered friends, wowing critics, sweeping animated awards and making a cool $190 million worldwide.

Bringing their second feature to audiences had been decidedly more difficult than the first, with frequent studio notes questioning Park’s direction with regard to whether Wallace and Gromit would be “trendy” enough for modern audiences. Meanwhile, Aardman had to figure out how to deal with the limitations claymation posed with regard to their next film, which, while no longer a pirate tale, had major aquatic elements that threatened the hand-crafted props. The solution: modernize the animation. 

Change Directions, Change Partners

Aardman made its first theatrical foray sans clay in 2006 with Flushed Away, relying instead on the computer-generated imagery DreamWorks Animation favored. The story of a high-class house mouse that gets dumped into a sewer metropolis meant water would be a key component, which was easier to handle with ones and zeros instead of plasticine. Aardman wasn’t about to abandon its roots though, and employed a great deal of digital trickery to give the characters that hand-crafted feel, including the use of claymated models as the basis of the digital ones. Finally released November 3, 2006, Flushed Away suffered both financially and critically from coming off the heels of a beloved predecessor, though it was still greeted positively.

Unfortunately, the film continued the trend of dropping box-office returns for Aardman pictures, bringing in a respectable but below-average $175 million. Making the film caused Aardman’s relationship with DreamWorks to become increasingly strained, thanks to studio tinkering that prolonged the project and sent it over budget. The experience proved so rough that only weeks before Flushed Away was released, the four-film contract the two companies had was terminated. The official word was that the parting was mutual, but insiders claimed Aardman’s creative team couldn’t operate under DreamWorks' nitpicking, while the latter had to make write-downs of the last two films made in the deal.

New Partners and a New Success

It seemed that Aardman’s onscreen success was increasingly tied to behind-the-scenes trouble, including losing a developing property to DreamWorks in the break-up and a studio fire that destroyed many of the original props and awards gathered over the years. But it speaks to how much confidence Sony had in the company that the studio brokered its own deal with Aardman in April 2007,  a three-year deal inking that Sony would co-produce, finance and distribute whatever it was Lord and company did next.

Rather than returning to the clay well that made them famous, Aardman and Sony’s animation divisions hunkered down for an 18-month pre-production on another CG effort. Official production of the project didn’t begin until April 2009, but Sony liked what it saw enough to extend its deal with Aardman in 2010.

The result was last November’s Arthur Christmas, a modern holiday fable that casts the son of Santa Claus as the star of a yuletide caper. The lengthy development largely paid off for Aardman, as Arthur Christmas received critical praise and award nominations, as well as moderate box-office success, with $150 million brought in worldwide. But as Arthur Christmas was gestating, Lord was busy on a new claymation film, one that would be Aardman’s first adaptation. Bringing back the high seas adventure they had hoped to do years earlier, Pirates! Band of Misfits (An Adventure with Scientists being the non-Americanized subtitle) will be hitting theaters today and brings the plasticine antics to the third dimension.

It marks a combination of Aardman’s two animation styles, with mostly clay characters and props set to digital backgrounds. Will it be a return to the glory days, a synthesis of all the lessons Aardman has learned in the last 25 years, or something else entirely? 


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