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Director: Norman McLaren
Release Date: 1938
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Mony a Pickle © Norman McLaren‘Mony a Pickle’ is a compilation film for the British ‘General Post Office’, made by several directors. In his contribution Norman McLaren turns to his homeland Scotland to tell a story about a poor young couple, still living with their family, but dreaming of a place of their own.

The dream sequence transforms the poor and crowded living room into a new stylish one, and uses a lot of stop motion of furniture. There’s a humorous sequence in which the two lovers argue about the legs of a table, which change back and forth for our very eyes. Unfortunately, in the end a little brother scatters all their dreams and puts them back into reality again.

‘Mony a Pickle’ is a nice blend of live action and stop-motion. The stop motion sequences in a long tradition of furniture animation, which started with Stuart J. Blackton’s ‘The Haunted Hotel’ (1908). McLaren’s animation is not too remarkable, but effective, and completely in service of the story.

‘Mony a Pickle’ is available on the DVD-box set ‘Norman McLaren – The Master’s Edition’

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Director: Norman McLaren
Production Date: 1938
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Love on the Wing © Norman McLarenIn the late 1930s Scottish film maker Norman McLaren made several films for the British Post, like the promotional live action films ‘Book Bargain’ (1937) about how telephone books were made, and ‘News for the Navy’ about how letters were delivered worldwide.

Much more interesting than these films, however, is the small advertisement film McLaren made for Empire Air Mail, ‘Love on the Wing’. The film is clearly strongly influenced by the surreal movement. It uses, for example, music from Jacques Ibert’s quirky ‘Divertissement’, which was by that time only eight years old, and the film’s opening images are reminiscent of works by Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí.

In ‘Love on the Wing’ McLaren’s exploits his trademark technique of drawing direct on film, and he combines these images with beautiful painted and highly surreal backgrounds, reminiscent of the otherworldly landscape paintings by Giorgio De Chirico and Yves Tanguy.

The film tells a little love story, but is wildly associative, with metamorphosis and symbolism simply exploding from the screen. The three protagonists change into letters and back again, as well in numerous other symbols of love. So much is happening in the mere four minutes, it leaves the viewer breathless.

‘Love on the Wing’ surely must be one of the most avant-garde advertisement films ever made, and the short is without doubt McLaren’s first animated masterpiece. Unfortunately, the film displeased the authorities of the post office, and they never distributed this extraordinary short.

Watch ‘Love on the Wing’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Love on the Wing’ is available on the DVD-box set ‘Norman McLaren – The Master’s Edition’

Director: Mark Baker
Release Date: 1988
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Hill Farm © Mark Baker‘The Hill Farm’ is a long animation film exploring man’s relation to nature.

First we watch the inhabitants of the hill farm themselves: simple farmers, who know the dangers and hardships of nature, and who treat their livestock without romanticism (as exemplified by the farmer’s wife killing chicken without ado).

At one point the hill farm is visited by tourists, who are completely alienated from nature. One of them faints at the sight of the farmer’s wife killing a chicken. When confronted by nature’s dangers (as embodied by a gigantic bear-like beast) they don’t recognize the danger at all. To them nature is something to visit, something to make snapshots from. The third party is a group of huntsmen, who (try to) kill everything in sight, including even the farmer’s bees.

The whole film takes place at a leisurely speed, without dialogue. Mark Baker’s visual style is simple, but very effective. His angular designs and graphic backgrounds are beautiful, and his animation has a unique timing, which is as comical as it is to the point. The narration is very open, leaving the interpretation to the viewer. The end result is one of the most beautiful animation films of the 1980’s.

Watch ‘The Hill Farm’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Hill Farm’ is available on the DVD Box Set ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e Anniversaire’

Director: John Halas
Release date: 1981
Rating:  ★
Review:

Dilemma © Halas & Batchelor‘Dilemma’ is one of the earliest computer animation films ever, and probably the first fully digitally produced one.

Unfortunately it is a rather vague, non-narrative film, which seems to try to tell us that we could better use the human mind for art and science than for violence and war.

‘Dilemma’ doesn’t make any use of 3D effects, but stays in a very graphic 2D design style. The only clear additions of the computer are the very primitive morphing sequences. Outside these, the animation is very limited. The film uses the same static head over and over again to illustrate the human mind.

The designs are rather ugly, and so is the synthesizer music. Moreover, the filmmakers seem to want to tell us too much, resulting in a rather tiresome film, in spite of its avant-gardism. It was to other film makers to use the full potential of the new technique of computer animation.

Watch ‘Dilemma’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Dilemma’ is available on the DVD inside the book ‘Halas & Batchelor Cartoons’

Directors: Nick Park & Steve Box
Release Date: September 4, 2005
Stars: Wallace & Gromit
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Wallace & Gromit - The Curse of the Were-Rabbit © AardmanAfter three excellent two-reelers British animation heroes Wallace and Gromit were ready for their first feature film.

‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ elaborates primarily on the themes of ‘A Close Shave’: love and horror. This time Wallace and Gromit are after a giant rabbit threatening the crops breeds for a vegetable contest in the village.

The stop motion animation in this film is practically flawless, elevating the century old technique to the highest standards possible. Indeed, both this film and ‘Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride‘, another stop motion film, were far superior to any computer animated feature film released in 2005 or 2006.

‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ is not only a great animation film, it is great cinema, with excellent camera work, a flawless story, wonderful characterization and lean storytelling that builds to a spectacular climax. Especially the animation of Gromit is stunning, because his acting is completely silent throughout the picture and uses only the eyes to suggest emotion.

Watch ‘Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Ruth Lingford
Release Date: 1997
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Death and the Mother © Ruth LingfordWhen death takes away her child, a mother gives up everything to get her back.

‘Death and the Mother’ is Ruth Lingford’s re-telling of a classic fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s an animation masterpiece: its strong and gritty animation, the beautiful string quartet music by Nigel Broadbent, the subtle sound effects –  all add up to a very strong, dark and emotional film. Lingford makes clever use of the computer to create a very graphic film that looks like an animated woodcut. In an age in which computer animation almost equals 3D animation, this is a refreshing technique, with a stark impact and an imagery unparalleled in the animation field.

Moreover, Lingford captures Andersen’s tale of grief, love and sacrifice very well, without trying to update it. Just by staying true to the essence of the original story she has made a timeless classic. Her wordless film is as universal as it can get, and capable of communicating to audiences worldwide. It’s a welcome antidote to the Disney fairy tale retellings, which get more and more watered down, and which lose a lot of the originals’ charm with it.

Watch ‘Death and the mother’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Death and the Mother’ is available on the DVD inside the book ‘Animation Now!’

Director: Nick Mackie
Release Date: 1999
Rating: ★★
Review:

Minotaur & Little Nerkin © Aardman‘Minotaur & Little Nerkin’ is a curious 2d computer animation, which looks like it is designed for children.

However, its story is rather black. The film features a minotaur who lurks a duck into his home to eat a captivated human hand, only in order to eat the duck himself. Remarkable for its morbid humor and original technique, it is nonetheless an ugly and unfunny film, that fails to entertain, let alone impress the viewer.

Watch ‘Minotaur & Little Nerkin’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Minotaur & Little Nerkin’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Mark Brierley
Release Date: 1998
Rating: ★
Review:

Al dente © Aardman‘Al dente’ is another film by computer animation pioneer at Aardman, Mark Brierley.

This short film looks even more primitive than ‘Owzat’ from the previous year. It doesn’t feature any backgrounds of notice, and the main character, a grumpy waiter who has to serve a vegetarian meal at a meat restaurant, looks primitive and unimaginative. The film is utterly mediocre and, like ‘Owzat’, probably would never have been released were it not an Aardman production.

Watch ‘Al dente’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Al dente’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Mark Brierley
Release Date: 1997
Rating: ★
Review:

Owzat © AardmanIn a graveyard a skeleton plays cricket with some unwilling ghosts.

‘Owzat’ is Aardman’s first endeavor into computer animation and it pales when compared to Pixar films from the same period. The designs look hopelessly primitive, the animation is stiff and the colors are rather ugly. As the film is quite incomprehensible, slow and unfunny, one wonders why it was made in the first place. It looks like a study, and it probably wouldn’t have been released if it had not been an Aardman production.

Watch ‘Owzat’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Owzat’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Boris Kossmehl
Release Date: 1993
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Not Without My Handbag © AardmanWhen she hasn’t paid her washing machine, a girl’s aunt has to go to hell.

However, she soon returns as a zombie to fetch her handbag. The devil tries to take her once again, this time disguised as the handbag.

Atypical for the Aardman studios, ‘Not Without My Handbag’ features puppet animation and hardly any clay animation. It’s a highly designed film, using stark colors, extreme camera angles and expressionistic decors. Its unique style is somewhat akin to that of Tim Burton, but is even more idiosyncratic. Despite its horror theme, the film is more lighthearted than the earlier Aardman films ‘Adam‘ (1991) or ‘Loves Me, Loves Me Not‘ (1992), because of its zany humor and matter-of-fact dialogue. For example, when her aunt returns as a zombie, the girl suddenly turns to camera and says proudly: “My auntie is a zombie from hell!”.

‘Not Without My Handbag’ is a modest masterpiece: it’s unpretentious, but it combines originality with virtuosity. The animation of the evil handbag is particularly good. Director-animator Boris Kossmehl later moved to 3D computer animation, performing character animation for Dreamworks’ ‘Antz’ and ‘Shrek’.

Watch ‘Not Without My Handbag’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Not Without My Handbag’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Jeff Newitt
Release Date: 1992
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Loves Me, Loves Me Not © AardmanA gentleman uses a flower to determine whether his girl loves him or not.

The contrasts between happiness (she loves him) and pain (she loves him not) get more and more extreme during the film, providing unsettling images of terror.

Like ‘Adam‘, ‘Loves Me, Loves Me Not’ is an example of dark humor, typical for the Aardman Studios at the time. The dark humor is typified by the screams of pain the flower exclaims, when its petals are removed, by the highly disturbing soundtrack and by the images of suicide and threat.

Combining virtuoso clay animation with some cel animation, the film is a technical masterpiece. It also features some great silent comedy, and especially the deft gestures of the Clark Gable-like gentleman are nicely done.

Watch ‘Loves Me, Loves Me Not’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Loves Me, Loves Me Not’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Peter Lord
Release Date: 1991
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Adam © AardmanA giant hand creates a man on a tiny planet.

His creator orders the man around, but the man soon discovers his barren sphere is too small to do anything, and that he is stuck to it. Luckily, in the end the creator grands him a companion, which turns out to be a penguin (iris out).

‘Adam’ exploits the dark humor typical for the early Aardman films. Its claustrophobia feels real and disturbing, and the film raises inevitable questions about existence and purpose of life. And though ‘Adam’ contains great silent comedy gags, the film is rather unsettling overall. Unfortunately, the film’s comedy is hampered by Stuart Gordon’s rather ugly electronic music. However, Lord’s animation is superb throughout, and a prime example of the more comedy-driven animation style the Aardman studio took from 1989 on.

Watch ‘Adam’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Adam’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Peter Lord
Release Date: 1989
Rating: ★★½
Review:

War Story © AardmanWith ‘War Story’ the Aardman studio returned to their original lip-synch experiments with real dialogue.

This time they use an interview with one Bill Perry, an old man who tells his memories of his life in Bristol during World War II. Unlike the ‘Animated conversations’ series, however, there is room for goofy images exaggerating the tall tales of the voice over, which involve a slant house and lots of coal. The film’s images are very tongue-in-cheek, yet this film once again suffers from a bad soundtrack, and the old man’s mumblings are at times very difficult to follow, indeed.

The blending of real interviews with original and humorous images would be perfected in ‘Creature Comforts’ by Nick Park, who also animated on this film. In this sense ‘War Story’ is an important step towards Aardman’s mature style, which was to become less serious, and more cartoony, and consequently, more commercially successful.

Watch ‘War Story’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘War Story’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Richard Goleszowski
Release Date: 1989
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Ident © Aardman‘Ident’ is a surrealistic film about how we change our identity over the course of a day according to the people we meet.

The film uses highly original and very stylized designs, and jabbering dialogue to an alienating effect. Its claustrophobic labyrinth setting alone is unsettling. The film is not heavy-weighted, however, but keeps a light sense of humor. It also features a flat dog that was to become the direct ancestor of Rex the Runt.

Watch ‘Ident’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ident’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: ?
Release Date: 1987
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

My Baby Just Cares For Me © Aardman‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ was Aardman Studio’s second video clip, after ‘Sledgehammer’ for Peter Gabriel (1986).

‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’  is not quite as elaborate, however. It’s a sweet little video in mostly black and white. It’s set to Nina Simone’s 1958 recording of the song, which was reissued in 1987 after being used in a successful commercial for Chanel No.5.

The clip features cat characters, including a black female cat singer, and a white cat who’s in love with her. It also features some live action footage showing details of a piano, brushes on a snare drum, and a double bass.

The smoky nightclub atmosphere is captured very well, and the animation, joyful if a little crude, matches the song perfectly. The result is one of the most enjoyable little stop motion films of the 1980s.

Watch ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Peter Lord & David Sproxton
Release Date: 1986
Rating: ★★
Review:

Babylon © Aardman‘Babylon’ is an early Aardman film criticizing weapon trade. Unfortunately, despite its sympathetic message, it’s not a successful film.

In it we watch a meeting of weapon dealers. During this gathering one of the guests, a bald Russian-looking guy, is growing in statue to a gargantuan size until it explodes into a flood of blood, destroying all the other guests.

‘Babylon’  impresses with its many detailed human-like plasticine puppets, its virtuoso stop motion animation and its elaborate set. But it suffers from slowness, ugly sound design and a very bad soundtrack, involving an all too long speech by the chairman of the weapon dealers. The end result is too tiresome and too vague to impress.

Watch ‘Babylon’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Babylon’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Erica Russell
Release Date: 1989
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Feet of Song © Erica Russell‘Feet of song’ is a non-narrative film about dance and Russell’s solo debut film.

It uses semi-abstract human forms, akin to those by painter Kazimir Malevich. The human forms feel both futuristic and African at the same time, and have a timeless appeal. The images get more and more abstract as the film progresses, but the sense of dance is never lost.

‘Feet of Song’ features African-sounding world music by Charlie Hart, but the music is in service to the beautiful images, not the other way round. Made for Channel 4, ‘Feet of Song’ is a prime testimony of Erica Russel’s unique style, clearly influenced by Oskar Fischinger, but firmly rooted in her South African and dancer background.

Unfortunately, Russell made only two other independent films, ‘Triangle’ in 1994, and ‘Soma’ in 2001, devoting most of her time to commissioned work (her images for example appear in the Madonna video-clip ‘Dear Jessie’ from 1989).

Watch ‘Feet of Song’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Feet of Song’ is available on the DVD inside the book ‘Animation Now!’

Directors: John Halas & Joy Batchelor
Release Date: January 31, 1954
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Animal Farm © Halas & BatchelorBased on George Orwell’s famous fable (published only nine years before), Animal Farm is the first animated feature made in England, it’s one of Europe’s first feature films, and it’s undoubtedly among the masterpieces of feature animation.

The film falls into the tradition of Disney-style semi-realistic cel animation. However, it sets itself apart from the Disney tradition in its grim and political story, its lack of sentimentality and its open depiction of cruelty and violence. Moreover, the backgrounds are bold oil paintings, with visible brush strokes and darker colors than any Disney film had ever shown.

Nevertheless, the realistic and wonderful animation of the animals pays some depths to the Disney tradition (watch the Silly Symphony ‘Farmyard Symphony‘ for example), greatly helped by the presence of ex-Disney animator John Reed. The film even contains one sweet character for comical relief in a little duckling who tries to keep up with the other animals, echoing the turtle in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937). However, when the story turns particularly grim, with the killing of the Trotsky-like pig Snowball by Napoleon’s dog henchmen, we do not see this cute character again.

The assassination of Snowball is the first of several alarming events in which the animals’ revolution is betrayed. The most disturbing of these is Boxer’s ride to a certain death. This scene is the emotional highlight of the film, and it creates strong feelings of outrage and alarm, still. The horror on the face of his friend Benjamin is very well captured, and moves to this day.

Using a voice over and evocative music by Hungarian composer Mátyás Seiber, the film retells Orwell’s story effectively, using only Orwell’s own words. Its only strong deviation from the book is its ending. Where Orwell’s novel ends with the Stalin-like pig Napoleon’s regime installed, the film ends with yet another revolution – some wishful thinking that in the real world never quite came true until the late 1980s, when encouraged by Gorbachev’s perestroika, the people all over Eastern Europe revolted against their communist oppressors.

‘Animal Farm’, which was released within a year after Stalin’s death, is still a moving portrait of the corrupting force of power. Even though its subject, the Soviet Union, has long been a state of the past, the forces depicted in this movie are still active. The world is not free of its Napoleons, yet…

Watch ‘Animal Farm’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: John Halas & Joy Batchelor
Release Date: 1948
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Magic Canvas © Halas & Batchelor‘Magic Canvas’ is rather pretentiously introduced as “something different (….), new and exciting”.

Luckily, the film is rather original and exciting: using a rather abstract score by Hungarian composer Mátyás Seiber, it consists of associative images with a strong sense of surrealism. It loosely tells the story of man struggling to be free. Even though it has to pay its debts to Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ (1940), ‘The Magic Canvas’ surely is one of the most avant-gardistic films of its time, and a testimony of Halas & Batchelor’s animation ambitions.

Watch ‘Magic Canvas’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Magic Canvas’ is available on the DVD inside the book ‘Halas & Batchelor Cartoons’

Director: Peter Lord & David Sproxton
Release Date: 1978
Rating: ★★
Review:

Confessions of a Foyer Girl © Aardman‘Confessions of a Foyer Girl’ is the second film in Aardman’s revolutionary ‘Animated Conversations’ series.

Like its predecessor, ‘Down & Out‘, the film uses recorded dialogue. This time we hear two foyer girls chatting in a cinema. The dialogue is hard to understand and the lip-synch is not as good as in ‘Down & out’. Moreover, the animation is associated with seemingly unrelated stock live action footage, which leads to a film, which is both experimental and vague. The result never quite works and the result must be called a failure.

‘Confessions of a Foyer Girl’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

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