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Under the Radar: The Films of Aardman Animation

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Nov 21, 2011 | 8:42am EST

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Despite the fact that we are still days removed from Thanksgiving, we’re well into the season of Christmas cinema. The first major holiday release was November 4th’s A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas and continues this week with the release of Arthur Christmas.

I’m sure it’s crossed the minds of many who have viewed the trailer for this film that creating an original Christmas movie after we’ve been subjected to a sleigh-full of titles every year for decades is a formidable undertaking. But all early reports from critics are that Arthur Christmas rises to the occasion. This doesn’t surprise me, as the film was produced by the one and only Aardman Animations. If you aren’t familiar with this company, here are a few of their previous titles we highly recommend you check out:

The Wallace and Gromit Shorts

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The short-form exploits of a madcap inventor and his loyal, if silently sardonic, canine companion served as my introduction to the visual and comedy style of Nick Park and Aardman Animations; as was the case with many Americans. The stop-motion animation using clay figures was their visual signature and it was impossible not to enjoy the lovable witlessness of Wallace and the desperate heroics—not to mention surprisingly expressive reactions—of mute mutt Gromit. Without question, my favorite is The Wrong Trousers which not only puts a clever twist on the heist film, but also introduces us to the most unlikely, and subsequently hilarious, villain in the unassuming penguin houseguest.

Chicken Run

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Released in 2000, Chicken Run is probably Aardman Animations’ most well-known and successful film to date, at least stateside. This time they brought their stop motion calling card to the big screen in a barnyard tribute to The Great Escape. Featuring the voice talents of a number of beloved British actors, as well as Mel Gibson just for a little added star power, Chicken Run, like the Wallace and Gromit Shorts, proves to be just as entertaining for adults as it is for children. The “mixed vegetables” line still kills me. Nick Park, the mastermind behind nearly all of the Wallace and Gromit shorts, co-wrote and co-directed Chicken Run alongside Peter Lord.

Flushed Away

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In 2006, Aardman teamed with Dreamworks to bring us the story of a high society rat named Roddy forced to experience life in the sewers thanks to “dirty rat” Sid. Flushed Away features some of the most elaborate action sequences Aardman has yet to tackle and marks the first time Aardman dabbled with CG animation. The early sequence alone, of Roddy tumbling through the pipes and down into the sewer, is beautiful. The film also features fantastic spoofs of everything from the Batman television series to Pixar’s Finding Nemo.

Flushed Away features a more diverse palate of character design than anything previously seen from Aardman. Voicing these various creatures are the likes of Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, and Jean Reno.

Creature Comforts

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Though it has many different incarnations, I would recommend watching as much of this bizarre animated series as possible. The basic premise here is that everyday people are interviewed about any number of basic topics. The audio of their responses is then used to dub animations of various animals in the signature Aardman style. The hilarious assignment of specific animals to correspond with the subject’s answer is what makes the show so effective; a bull espousing the importance of subtlety for example. The show ran for two seasons in the UK in 2003 and even tried, and unfortunately failed, at a U.S. version in 2007.

Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

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The dynamic claymation duo got the big screen treatment in 2005’s Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. This time around, the pairis in the humane pest control business and must solve the mystery of local vegetable gardens being ravaged by a mysterious predator. What I love about this film is how thoroughly it lampoons horror films, in particular Universal’s classic The Wolf Man. The sequence at the beginning featuring a demonstration of the team’s humane bunny gathering machine makes me laugh heartily each and every time I see it. Nick Park won an Oscar for the film, his fourth total and all for his work with Aardman.

While it is true that Arthur Christmas is a break from Aardman’s traditional animation style, their track record is at the very least a great incentive to see the film when it hits theaters this week.

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