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Directors: Mark Burton & Richard Starzak
Release Date:
January 24, 2015
Stars: Shaun the Sheep
Rating:
★★★★★

Thank God for the LAIKA and Aardman Studios, which, in a time of cliché-ridden computer animated films, devote their time to the ancient art of stop-motion, and who dare to tell stories that are less trope-rich than most contemporary mainstream animation films. Of this the ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ is an excellent example.

Shaun the Sheep made his debut in the Wallace and Gromit film ‘A Close Shave’ from 1995. From 2007 on the little sheep stars his own television series. In this series Shaun gets his own world: he’s part of a flock, owned by a nameless farmer and guarded by a partly anthropomorphized sheepdog called Bitzer. The series is rather unique in the present television animation world for both being completely animated in stop-motion, and being completely devoid of dialogue.

The first feature length movie about Shaun the Sheep features all the main protagonists from the series, and retains the lack of dialogue, a tour de force in a feature length film, rarely done before (an obvious example is ‘Les triplettes de Belleville’ from 2002). When taking Shaun the Sheep from the small television screen to the big screen of movie theaters, the studio also took the little sheep and his co-stars out of their comfortable little barnyard world and into the big city (consequently called ‘Big City’). This not only meant completely new plot possibilities, but also a multitude of very elaborate sets, full of props, which never seize to amaze in their grand scale, and richness of detail.

The plot starts when Shaun decides to have a day off. He manages to lull the farmer into sleep inside a caravan, and takes over possession of the farmer’s house. Unfortunately, the caravan plunges downhill, out of the farmer’s terrain, and into the big city. Bitzer immediately recognizes the danger, but Shaun, free at last, is a slower learner. Only when he realizes the sheep will soon run out of food, he comes into action, and follows both the farmer and Bitzer into town.

Matters get extra complicated when his flock follows him, when they encounter an animal catcher called A. Trumper, and when the farmer gets hit by a traffic light bulb, making him losing his memory. Luckily, the gang meets an ugly, but very friendly orphan mongrel called Slip (although her name is never revealed during the film), which helps them throughout the movie.

The film is full of delightful scenes, and despite Shaun’s slightly moralistic story arc (which can be summarized as ‘be careful what you wish for’ and ‘appreciate what you’ve got’), it’s clear that humor has a number one seat. Especially delightful are Bitzer’s scene at an operation room, the flock of sheep, poorly disguised as humans, dining in a fancy restaurant, and the animal prison scenes, complete with references to ‘Night of the Hunter’ (1953) and ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991, especially cleared for the occasion by Warner Bros.).

The movie isn’t entirely devoid of tropes, however. There’s the typical ‘all hope is lost’ scene, but even in this scene the gang stays together. There’s no conflict between the main protagonist and his friends, unlike many contemporary films (e.g. ‘Up’ (2009), ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2’ (2013), and ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ from 2016), a welcome diversion to this almost obligatory scene.

Another trope is that of the almost invincible villain (see also e.g. ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ from 2012), played out by Trumper, who even follows the gang home in order to destroy them. Nevertheless, the story is original enough to surprise and to entertain throughout. It’s also admirable how the makers managed to even give the hapless farmer his own subplot.

The lack of dialogue means that all emotions have to be acted out solely with gestures and facial expressions. In this respect, the animators do an excellent job. There’s especially a lot of subtle emotion in the eyes, and there’s plenty of animation depicting the characters’ inner thinking. This is animation art at its peak. This, in combination with the stunning handicraft depicted in every scene, makes ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ a stand-out in the present animation film era. The film may be targeted to children, it’s absolutely a delight for the whole family, with something entertaining for everyone. Highly recommended.

Watch the trailer for ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Nick Park
Release Date:
December 24, 1995
Stars: Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep
Rating:
★★★½

Like the ground-breaking ‘The Wrong Trousers‘, ‘A Close Shave’ has a mystery plot featuring an evil genius framing Gromit. This time the premise is a wool shortage.

Wallace and Gromit are window cleaners, accidentally harboring an escaped sheep, and later meeting the villain, a bulldog called Preston, themselves. Things get complicated when Wallace gets romantically involved with Preston’s owner, wool shop owner Wendolene Ramsbottom, and Preston turns Wallace’s knit-o-matic into a killer machine, turning sheep into dog food.

As with ‘The Wrong Trousers’ the film knows a spectacular finale, first with an exciting car chase (also involving a little plane), and then in Preston’s dog food factory. As with the earlier film the suggestion of speed is flawless, and one forgets immediately that the original clay puppets didn’t move at all. The animation and the elaborate sets are even more spectacular than in the earlier film.

And yet, ‘A Close Shave’ is less gripping than ‘The Wrong Trousers’ was. The plot is more predictable, the car chase more conventional, and Preston less creepy than the penguin was in the earlier film, despite being indestructible in a rather Terminator-like manner. It’s a pity Nick Park and his team didn’t come with a more different plot, because now ‘A Close Shave’ demands too much comparison to the earlier film.

Nevertheless, the film is very important in Aardman history, for it introduces Shaun the Sheep, since 2007 hero of his own series, and star of no less than two feature length films. Already in his first short the little sheep shows to be a brave and inventive little fellow, and he literally has the last laugh.

Watch the opening of ‘A Close Shave’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Close Shave’ is available on the DVD ‘Wallace & Gromit – The Complete Collection’

Director: Nick Park
Release Date: December 26, 1993
Stars: Wallace and Gromit
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕

The Wrong Trousers © Aardman‘The Wrong Trousers’ was the second short featuring the cheese-loving duo Wallace & Gromit.

Their first outing, ‘A Grand Day Out’ had been a virtuoso piece of clay animation, but even so, ‘The Wrong Trousers’ was a giant leap forward, taking Aardman’s claymation out of the independent animation atmosphere into the mainstream of slick studio productions, without losing an inch of character.

Despite being only 29 minutes long and featuring only three characters, ‘The Wrong Trousers’ feels like classic cinema. The fifties horror typography of the opening titles immediately makes it clear that we’re in for a mystery plot, and indeed this is a crime thriller with a small penguin as a most unlikely, but very convincing villain.

The film opens on Gromit’s birthday, a day which turns out quite sour. First, Wallace seems to have forgotten all about it, then he gives him the most useless gift imaginable: automatic trousers to walk him out without his faithful master. Then it turns out that Wallace has to cut expenses and … a room for rent.

That very evening the penguin comes in as the new boarder, but instead of taking the vacant room, he heads immediately for Gromit’s room. The mysterious penguin first takes care of Gromit, chasing the poor dog out of the house, then he uses the trousers in a diamond heist scheme.

The whole film is very well shot, featuring expressionistic angles and clever zooming in and out between the  front and back of the set. The suspense is greatly added by dramatic orchestral music by Julian Nott. And throughout the animation, by Nick Park himself and by Steve Box, is top notch.

Especially the two silent characters, the penguin and Gromit, are very well animated: the penguin creepy and enigmatic, hardly revealing its emotions, except in the heist scene, Gromit with a multitude of expressions, making great use of Nick Park’s trademark brow technique. In fact, Gromit is such a rounded character, he easily carries the whole film easily using the expressions of his eyes alone. Especially Gromit’s agony, having to watch how the penguin silently takes over his home, is tantalizing.

Nevertheless, the most impressive part of this short is the finale. This is a remarkable chase scene, ridiculously set indoors on miniature trains, but it consists of five frantic minutes with a sense of speed never seen before in a stop-motion film. This finale alone takes the possibilities of stop-motion forward to new heights, and together with ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ from the same year, ‘The Wrong Trousers’ must be regarded as a milestone in animation. Thus, the next year the film rightfully won the Academy Award for animated short.

The film also started a sort of Wallace and Gromit tradition of combining silly inventions with mystery thriller plots, as this would be the promise of all three subsequent Wallace and Gromit films.

Watch ‘The Wrong Trousers’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Wrong Trousers’ is available on the DVD ‘Wallace & Gromit – The Complete Collection’

Director: Luis Cook
Release Date: June 11, 2007
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Pearce Sisters © Aardman Studio‘The Pearce Sisters’ is an atypical product from the Aardman studio, as it does not use claymation, but 2D computer animation.

Cook tells a tale by Mick Jackson about two ugly sisters who live on a windy beach, far from the rest of the world. Their life is harsh, but they have each other. Then, one day, they save a man out of the sea…

The short is a rather morbid tale, but Cook manages to focus on the relationship between the two sisters, making the film gentler than one would expect. Cook’s style is completely his own – and owes nothing to Aardman’s general ‘Nick Park’ style. Cook tells his tale in great silent scenes, enhanced by a superb audio design – there’s only one line of dialogue in the entire film.

Watch ‘The Pearce Sisters’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Pearce Sisters’ is available on the DVD Box ‘The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 6’ and on the French DVD box set ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e anniversaire’

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: 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: 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’

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

Down & Out © Aardman‘Down & out’ is the first film in Aardman’s ‘animated conversations’ series and the British studio’s first masterpiece.

The very idea of using dialogue from real life is revolutionary enough, but to use it for clay animation with lip-synch is a masterstroke. Moreover, the animation of the plasticine figures is startling: it lacks the exaggerations of normal animation, but uses small gestures and real movements, like scratching one’s nose or belly, instead. The animation continues realistically even when not supported by the soundtrack. The result is uncannily realistic, making the drama of an old, confused man asking for food and shelter, but being turned down at an Salvation army office, extra tragic.

With this film Aardman single-handedly invented the ‘animated documentary’, a genre which would lead to fantastic films like ‘Ryan’ and ‘Waltz with Bashir’ in the 2000s.

‘Down & Out’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

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