'Shaun the Sheep' and beyond: The magic of Aardman

‘Shaun the Sheep’ and beyond: The magic of Aardman

As many cinema-savvy parents know, in the world of animated family fare, there are three studios with track records of offering family audiences a level of inspiration beyond the Hollywood baseline defined by Disney, DreamWorks, Fox, and so forth. Each of the three is from a different continent — and

As many cinema-savvy parents know, in the world of animated family fare, there are three studios with track records of offering family audiences a level of inspiration beyond the Hollywood baseline defined by Disney, DreamWorks, Fox, and so forth. Each of the three is from a different continent — and each specializes in a different form of animation.

One, of course, is Pixar, which pioneered the computer-animated feature film with “Toy Story,” and which remains the top name in the field, notwithstanding a few stumbles since being acquired by Disney. Then there’s Japan’s Studio Ghibli, co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”) and Isao Takahata (“Grave of the Fireflies”), which continues to produce gorgeous works of hand-drawn cel animation (though Miyazaki is currently developing the studio’s first computer-animated film, a short).

And in the UK there’s Aardman Animations, specialists in stop-motion animation (or claymation), and creators of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep (whose appealing big-screen debut opens in US theaters this week). (US-based stop-motion studio Laika, purveyors of stop-motion macabre, doesn’t yet have the same track record; they’ve released only three films, and while the first, “Coraline,” is a darkly brilliant near-masterpiece, the other two, “ParaNorman” and especially “The Boxtrolls,” chart a downward trajectory.)

Aardman is best known for the films and characters of Nick Park. Park’s early work includes the trilogy of shorts that gave the world the duo of Wallace and Gromit: “A Grand Day Out” (1989), “The Wrong Trousers” (1993) and “A Close Shave” (1995). The latter two won Oscars for best animated short; “A Grand Day Out” was nominated, but lost to Park’s own “Creature Comforts,” also released that year. Park also co-directed Aardman’s first two feature films, “Chicken Run” (2000) and “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005).

Park’s most recent effort is a fourth Wallace & Gromit short, “A Matter of Loaf and Death” (2008). (Various collections including the original Wallace & Gromit trilogy, all four shorts, and/or even “Curse of the Were-Rabbit” are available on DVD and Blu-ray as well as Amazon Instant; watch also for “Cracking Contraptions,” a set of 10 mini-shorts, each about 3 minutes or less, spotlighting Wallace’s usually dubious inventions.)

“A Grand Day Out,” the slightest of the original trilogy, offers a charmingly naive, feather-light tale about a man and his dog building a rocket to take a holiday to the moon.  In this first outing, both Park’s technique and his characters are somewhat in transition; Wallace is not clearly an inventor by vocation or avocation, though his celebrated love of cheese is firmly in place; in fact, building the rocket is just something he does in order to sample the moon’s green cheese.

With the brilliant “The Wrong Trousers,” both Park and his characters hit their stride in a big way. A sophisticated, witty, expertly structured genre spoof with elements of sci-fi thriller, caper film and action movie, “The Wrong Trousers” introduces the theme of science gone amok which continues into “A Close Shave” and “Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”

“A Close Shave” is the equal to “The Wrong Trousers,” or very nearly, and adds two new motifs that will continue through “Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and a fourth short, “A Matter of Loaf and Death” (2008). First, Wallace and Gromit (whose limited means drove them to take in a boarder in “The Wrong Trousers”) are now putting Wallace’s inventions to practical entrepreneurial use, here as window-washers. Second, Wallace embarks on the first of a number of ill-fated romances, here with a shopkeeper named Wendolene whose intimidating guard dog Preston is more than he appears.

“A Close Shave” also introduced a flock of runaway sheep, one of whom Wallace nicknamed Shaun (punning on “shorn”). Shaun helped to save the day in “A Close Shave,” and in 2007 he got his own spinoff TV series, still in production.

Now at home on a sheep farm in northern England with a supporting cast that includes a farmer, a sheepdog and farm cat, and various other assorted animals, Shaun’s adventures take the form of 7-minute shorts that unfold — and here is the series’ master-stroke — without dialogue, essentially taking the form of silent slapstick shorts, like many of the best Pixar shorts.

“Shaun the Sheep” is among the most delightful and universally accessible entertainments for the whole family. A shrewd blend of wide-eyed curiosity and savvy sophistication, “Shaun” is entertaining to adult sensibilities, yet rarely leaves behind even the youngest viewers.

Turning to the feature films, “Chicken Run” brings Park’s genre-spoofing sensibilities to a tale of chickens plotting an escape from a chicken farm, filtered through the conventions of World War II POW escape movies like “The Great Escape” and “Stalag 17.” Starring Mel Gibson as a flashy, rather fly-by-night American circus rooster and Julia Sawalha as a hen plotting the escape, it was the highest-grossing non-Disney/Pixar animated film of its day, and remains far and away the highest-grossing stop-motion animated film ever.

“Curse of the Were-Rabbit” successfully scaled Wallace and Gromit’s schtick to feature length, with a new home business for our heroes (pest control specializing in rabbits) featuring Wallace’s most transcendently goofy invention, the Bun-Van 6000; a new doomed romance for Wallace, dizzy Lady Tottington (a hilarious Helena Bonham Carter), terrific man-and-dog foils for Wallace and Gromit,  preening Lord Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes, also hilarious) and his nasty little terrier; and a meticulously structured comic plot featuring some of the most inspired images, wordplay, and social satire in Aardman’s oeuvre. (The subsequent short “A Matter of Loaf and Death” is a comparative disappointment, though it’s diverting enough.)

Aardman’s third feature, the 2012 swashbuckling comedy “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” — or, as it’s known in the UK, “The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists!” — is perhaps the most bonkers film the studio has ever produced. Starring Hugh Grant as the generically named Pirate Captain (with salty crew bearing similarly generic monikers like Albino Pirate, Pirate with Gout, and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate), “The Pirates!” also finds room for a lonely-hearted Charles Darwin (yes, that Charles Darwin) with an unrequited crush on a grotesquely malevolent Queen Victoria, not to mention cameos by a coquettish Jane Austen and the Elephant Man.

Aardman’s least impressive efforts are their two computer-animated efforts, “Flushed Away” (2006) and “Arthur Christmas” (2011). Even these are far from unwatchable, though neither quite convinces you it was a good idea. For the Aardman filmmakers, it seems that inspiration and the tactile work of stop-motion go hand in hand.

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