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Director: Peter Lord
Release Date: April 10, 1996
Rating: ★★
Review:

Aardman founder Peter Lord penned and directed this medieval story for children about two royal twin brothers who get separated. One remains royal, the other becomes an ordinary peasant. But when their country is threatened by an enemy, the tables are turned, or not?

This film features silent comedy, with very little dialogue (only ‘me?’ and ‘hello?’ are uttered). More interesting is the returning use of a split screen. The animation and sets are both of a high quality, but Lord’s story is as rambling as it is boring, and completely fails to fulfil its promise. The film ends rather sudden and inconclusive, leaving us with Andy Price’s attractive quasi-medieval music. In fact, I’m surprised the film even got an Academy Award nomination.

Watch ‘Wat’s Pig’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Wat’s Pig’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Peter Lord
Release Date:
March 28, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

Aardman’s fifth feature film was, after two computer animated films, a welcome return to the stop-motion the studio is most famous for. It had been seven years since their last stop-motion feature film, ‘Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’, and meanwhile the studio had exchanged partnership from Dreamworks to Sony Pictures Animation.

Not that that is visible in ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ (also known as The Pirates! Band of Misfits’), however, as the film is one hundred percent Aardman. More precisely, even though Nick Park was not involved in this project, his recognizable style now had become the trademark general Aardman style, thus ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ explores characters with the same googly eyes and large teeth, if slightly more ‘realistic’ than in the Wallace & Gromit universe.

Unlike Aardman’s earlier features, ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ is not an original story, but an adaptation of a children’s novel by British writer Gideon Defoe. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on any differences, but the film certainly is a pretty silly affair, and much of it must have been present in the original writing.

The film takes place in some fantasy take on the 19th century, and stars several historical figures, like Queen Victoria (here depicted as a furious pirate-hating monarch and the villain of the film), Charles Darwin (depicted as a whiny and cowardly character, longing for a girlfriend, and having an all too intelligent chimpanzee as a butler), and, in a small cameo, Jane Austen (the latter’s inclusion is particularly odd, as she died twenty years before Victoria became queen).

The pirates of the title have more in common with Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta ‘Pirates of Penzance’ (1879)* than with the real thing and are depicted with all the present day cliches imaginable. They’re all dressed in 17th century fashion, belying the 19th century setting, there are wooden legs, flags with skulls, several ‘arrrr’s etc. The modern take on this time period in emphasized by a soundtrack of modern British pop music featuring songs by e.g. Tenpole Tudor, The Clash, The Beat and Supergrass. Thus historicity clearly isn’t the film’s main goal.

On the contrary, the film is self-consciously loony, and chock full of gags and pure nonsense. For example, there’s a pirate festival in which one pirate will be awarded ‘pirate of the year’; one of those pirates makes his entrance from the insides of a giant sperm whale landing on the small harbor; queen Victoria’s dress turns out to be a military killing machine, and so on and so forth.

The story tells about ‘The Pirate Captain’ (he nor his crew do carry names), who dreams of winning ‘the pirate of the year’ award, but who’s actually the laughing stock of the pirate community. In one of his puny attempts to loot a ship he meets Charles Darwin (on his voyage on ‘The Beagle’, which in reality also occurred before Queen Victoria was crowned). Darwin takes interest in the Pirate Captain’s parrot Polly, who’s actually a dodo, and persuades the captain to hand her over for science…

‘The Pirate Captain’, excellently voiced by Hugh Grant, is a round character, dim but enthusiastic, incapable but ambitious, and the story’s focus rests on the tension field between his own ambitions and the love for his crew, mostly personified by pirate ‘Number Two’, who acts as the conscience of the ship. The other six crew members are less well-developed, but allow for a lot of laughs, especially ‘Albino Pirate’ and ‘Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate’ (an obvious woman with a false orange beard).

In the end the story is less interesting than the general silly atmosphere and the multitude of gags. In fact, the plot is disappointingly generic, containing the obligate break-up scene in which the ambitions of the main protagonist lead to an alienation of his friends (also present in e.g. ‘Up’ from 2009 and ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2’ from 2013), and an equally generic gravity-defying finale, once again bringing back memories to ‘Up’.

The animation is outstanding throughout, and one quickly forgets it’s all done in laboring stop motion. There’s way too much action, and even a breathtaking chase scene (inside Darwin’s London home) to stand still and marvel at the animation itself – it’s simply too fluent, and seemingly effortless – a testimony of the enormous talent present at the British studio. There’s even some traditional animation, when the Pirates’ voyages are depicted on a map of the world. Likewise, there’s hardly time to gape at the sets, which are magnificent in their elaboration and made with so much love and care that one gets immediately submerged into the pirates’ world. I’ve seen the pirate ship at an Aardman exhibition in Groningen, The Netherlands, and that alone is a prop of 3 meters high(!). The captain’s room, too, was something to marvel at – containing a lot of subtle jokes you’ll hardly notice in the movie – if at all. Look for the captain’s log!

In all, ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ is great fun, brought to you with bravado and a virtuosity that will leave you breathless.

* the whole concept of Pirate King seems to come from this operetta.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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: 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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