While countless filmmakers have strived and failed to recapture the magic and inexplicable eeriness of classic monster movies – as much the Universal canon as Jacques Tourneur’s line of wild horror noirs – Aardman Animation cast a similar spell in ostensibly parodying those films. Nick Park and Steve Box‘s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the inaugural feature from Aardman’s beloved mainstays Wallace and Gromit, took the bare elements of The Wolf Man and melded it to the wondrous idiosyncrasies of the man-dog duo, from Wallace’s obsessive desire for cheese to Gromit’s innumerable deadpan stares. From there, a story originally anchored to repressed aggression and bloodlust is transformed into a visually stunning and deeply charming tale of middle-aged malaise erupting into a rampaging beast with a strange hunger for vegetables. The outlandish humor is an extension of the wit that often spiced Tourneur’s furious odes to animalistic rebellion and even as the laughs leach into the suspenseful passages, those scenes and sequences still echo the mix of fear and melodrama that drove the best of classical horror.
Though still the best feature that Aardman has produced, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is hardly the only movie to borrow freely from British and American genre works. Chicken Run, co-directed by Park and Peter Lord, has the dramatic underpinnings and pro-labor sentiment that constantly rustled through John Ford’s titanic dramas while also adopting a storyline near identical to The Great Escape. Not unlike this week’s Early Man, The Pirates! Band of Misfits is pinned to the joy and insecurity of competition but the narrative owes an immense debt to Captain Blood, The Black Swan, Captain Horation Hornblower R.N., and even Pirates of the Caribbean. In each case, the Aardman film is denoted by a lovely sense of comedic looseness traded in for the varying depth of the movies they brazenly allude to throughout their respective runtimes.
For all this obvious focus on premise and gentle narrative subversion, what elevates Aardman’s best works above even the best of Pixar is the sense of nuance and detail in the characters. World-building tends to be the primary concern in Pixar movies, and the characters are never built to be at odds or eclipse the visual dazzle of the films. For as thrilling as The Incredibles or as exhilaratingly bizarre as Up is, there is a tidiness and inherent fear of complexity that keeps their often extremely promising thematic ideas at the water’s edge. Chicken Run may watch like a crayon outline of The Great Escape but each chicken, as well as Mel Gibson’s Rocky the Rooster, exudes a world unto themselves, a perspective unique to them that never feels overtly programmatic or in total conjunction with the ebb and flow of the plot. The characteristics of Wallace and Gromit have been reiterated in a handful of superb shorts and there is still a rushing sense of unpredictability and untamed inner self to their actions and exchanges in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
This basic unruliness is echoed in the use of stop-motion clay animation in Aardman’s best films. There is a contingency of animation fans that insist that there’s a distinct humanity to hand-drawn animation, a preternatural knowledge that the image was rendered by the hand of a person rather than a computer. It’s an undeniable truth, even if purists often unfairly dismiss computer animation’s myriad triumphs, and its roots are in imperfections, a familiar and ingratiating inexactness. The same imperfections can be seen in the molding of the characters, creatures, and landscapes in Early Man, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, The Pirates!, and Chicken Run. And where Pixar overexerts itself trying to submerge the viewer in its world, it’s regularly apparent that the worlds of Aardman’s stop-motion movies are large-scale models fussed over by a team of passionate, dedicated artists. There’s a level of visual seduction to Aardman’s work where Pixar and Dreamworks often feels as if the colorful splendor and scope of the world popped up out of nowhere, even though the same amount of technique and desire is required.
It’s why Aardman’s two computer-generated films, Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, have often gone ignored, though admittedly The Pirates is also often left out of any conversation about Aardman. In the case of Flushed Away, it’s hard to argue against its obscurity. The story, about a pampered pet mouse (Hugh Jackman) who is kicked down the pipes for an adventurous taste of the lower classes, hits familiar plot beats and shows none of the elegant and confident use of music and sound that paint Chicken Run or The Shaun the Sheep Movie. Arthur Christmas’ mild reputation is the bigger tragedy, as the film boasts a genuinely thoughtful Christmas tale about the myth of efficiency and the ties that bind work to self-worth. Where Flushed Away looks like a bootleg of the Aardman style, based largely on Park’s sense of design, Arthur Christmas openly bucks that very style and creates a lively aesthetic all its own, as well as remarkable and surprising comedic timing.
Still, even Flushed Away has a few excellent scenes with the film’s villain, The Toad (Ian McKellan), including a hilarious scene of him touring his museum of British tourism junk centered on landmarks and the royals. A theme that carries throughout these movies is a certain distaste for the crown as well as the managerial class, a natural love for those who seek adventure and identity where so many others look for gold and praise. This is certainly true of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and The Pirates but it may be best represented by The Shaun the Sheep Movie, the last Aardman production prior to Early Man. Made after the inarguably more Hollywood-friendly productions of Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, The Shaun the Sheep Movie tells of the titular unspeaking mammal’s trip into the city with its flock to regain the leadership of its farmer, who has lost his memory and become a celebrity hair stylist. Though one could possibly construe the film as an ode to English traditionalism, it’s also a call for skills being used for substantive work rather than simple frivolity and aesthetic pleasure. There’s an eccentricity to the world of Shaun the Sheep that belies the film’s arguably old-fashioned, nostalgic bedrock, a willingness to be thrown into the unknown if only to maintain what you know, and its apparent in the spirit of all Aardman films.