Early Man Review

Aardman is one of the most beloved animation studios around. Their lighthearted stop-motion creations have captured the hearts of audiences around the world. At the heart of Aardman’s popularity is animator Nick Park, who created and directed all of the Wallace & Gromit films, in addition to directing Chicken Run and creating Shaun the Sheep. There’s probably only a handful of animators out there who have reached a similar level in both popularity and acclaim.

In 2018, Park directed Early Man, his first time in the director’s chair since the 2009 Wallace & Gromit short, A Matter of Loaf and Death, and his first full-length feature since Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005. With a pretty much unblemished record under Park’s belt up to that point, there was a good deal of anticipation surrounding Early Man before its release. That’s why it’s so disheartening that the final film is notably underwhelming.

To be fair, Early Man isn’t an outright bad movie, and the sheer herculean craftsmanship that Aardman puts into its plasticine creations always deserve praise. It’s just that the film ultimately ends up being just kind of okay, and unfortunately forgettable. And this coming from the creator of Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep? That kind of hurts.

As the title implies, Early Man is set in prehistoric times, where a tribe of cavemen live in a lush, green valley… surrounded by a volcanic wasteland. The tribe’s chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) leads his people in a simple life of rabbit hunting. But a young man in the tribe named Dug (Eddie Redmayne) wishes the tribe would branch out a bit and be more adventurous.

One day, out of the blue, a tribe of invaders – unlike any that Dug and his people have seen- make camp in the valley. These invaders come from beyond the wastelands, and have advanced into the Bronze Age while time left Dug and his people in the Stone Age. The invaders, lead by the greedy Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), have come to dig up the land in search of more bronze, unflinching to the plight they’re creating to Dug and his people.

Dug soon infiltrates the Bronze Aged people, and learns that much of their culture is built around football (or soccer, as us Americans call it, even though the soccer-type of football is the type of football where the player’s actually use their feet). When it looks like his people are going to be banished to live in the dangers of the wastelands, Dug makes a deal with Lord Nooth: his tribe will take on the Bronze people’s team in a game of football. If the cavemen win, they get to keep their valley. But if Nooth’s team wins, the cave people will be forced to slave away in a bronze mine for the rest of their lives (that’s a bit of a careless bet on Dug’s part, though he doesn’t quite seem to understand what that means when he makes the deal).

And so the stage is set for the cavemen to get an understanding of football so that they might have a fighting chance to keep their valley. Thankfully for them, a young woman of the bronze people named Goona (Maisie Williams) – who knows the game well but can’t play for her own tribe as Lord Nooth doesn’t allow girls to play – has sympathy for the cavemen’s plight, and wishes to join them and teach them the ins and outs of the game.

If you’re at all thrown off by the sudden emphasis of football (or soccer or whatever you want to call it) in a movie about cavepeople, well, you’re not alone. When the film was released, no one really expected this to be a sports movie (that aspect was completely omitted from its advertisements, at least in America). I mean, an animated sports picture that just so happens to take place in prehistoric times isn’t the worst idea out there. And to be fair, Early Man introduces the sport in its opening scene, with the ancestors of Dug’s people inadvertently inventing the game by kicking a recently-crashed meteorite, so it isn’t entirely out of the blue. But the sports aspect of the film seems to completely engulf everything else after a while, making the film’s prehistoric setting feel like a missed opportunity.

There is some fun to be had with Early Man: There’s the occasional joke that sticks the landing and brings a good laugh, the voice work is great (Hiddleston is a particular highlight, making Lord Nooth a snobby Frenchman), and of course, the painstaking work that goes into animating any stop-motion film – especially those with the attention to detail of Aardman – is always commendable. But by the time Early Man reaches its end you can’t help but feel like it could have, and should have, been more. Some of Nick Park’s shorts are ranked among the most acclaimed animated films of all time, while Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit were similarly praised as feature films. So for Nick Park’s third feature – and his comeback after a such a lengthy absence – to end up being just kind of okay is a stinging disappointment.

I do have to stress that Early Man is not a bad movie, but it falls short of many of Aardman’s other works, and considerably short of those that had Nick Park at the helm. It’s a visually pleasing, lighthearted entertainment. But this is one instance in which Aardman’s craftsmanship can only take them so far.

5

Arthur Christmas Review

Arthur Christmas

The old adage of “don’t judge a book by its cover” may be used to the point of cliche, but it does ring a good deal of truth. Case in point, Arthur Christmas may look like your run-of-the-mill Christmas-themed animated film from a glance. But if you take the time to delve into it, Arthur Christmas proves itself to be a genuinely touching animated feature.

Perhaps the fact that Arthur Christmas comes from Aardman – the studio behind the excellent Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep series – should have tipped me off to its quality. But the fact that Arthur Christmas is among the studio’s CG output, as opposed to their more famous stop-motion features, coupled with the Christmas theme (all too often a recipe for recycled plots and bland characters) gave me my doubts. But Arthur Christmas is certainly the best of Aardman’s CG features, and in a time when most Christmas films seem to be becoming more cynical and, strangely, merging with the raunchy comedy sub-genre more often than not, Arthur Christmas is probably the most sincere Christmas film in recent memory.

Arthur Christmas does continue some trends of past Christmas flicks. Most notably, it tries to find a means to “modernize” the whole idea of Santa Clause. Though unlike most of the Christmas movies that came before it, Arthur Christmas actually comes up with a charming means to successfully bring Santa up to date.

Arthur ChristmasIn Arthur Christmas, Santa Clause is more of a title passed down through the patriarchal family that runs the North Pole, as opposed to the name of a singular individual. The twentieth and current Santa is Malcolm (Jim Broadbent), who is in his seventieth year on the job. His father, simply referred to as Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) is long-retired and a bit cooky. Malcolm’s sons are Steve (Hugh Laurie), the most tech-savvy and efficient member of the family, and overdue to being given his father’s title, and Arthur (James McAvoy), who is well-meaning and cheerful, but his clumsiness has resulted in him getting the “safe” job of answering children’s letters to Santa.

By this point, the reindeer-pulled sleigh of Grandsanta’s time has become obsolete. Now, Santa and an army of elves travel to the different countries of the Earth on Christmas Eve via the S-1, Steve’s gargantuan flying fortress. Santa, now being passed his prime, only needs to deliver a single gift to each visited city, as the more nimble elves can more easily deliver most the gifts under Steve’s direction (Santa is even escorted by a number of elves just to deliver his minimal gifts).

Arthur ChristmasThe new setup seems foolproof, until a miscalculation results in one present not being delivered on Christmas Eve. Neither Malcolm nor Steve are willing to deliver the present. Malcolm clings onto his title of Santa Clause – despite an expected retirement – for the love and adoration that comes with the job, but is too elderly and tired to be bothered by one gift. Meanwhile, Steve, disheartened that he has been denied the title of Santa Clause for another year, despite doing all the hard work, doesn’t have the motivation to deliver the gift (“the S-1 takes up a lot of power, and there’s no need to waste it for a single child”).

Arthur, being more innocent and hopeful, can’t understand the idea of Santa missing out on even a single child on Christmas, and is desperate to find a means to deliver the present. Luckily for Arthur, Grandsanta is looking for one more chance to shine, and the two of them – along with a gift-wrapping elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen) – dust off Grandsanta’s long-forgotten sleigh and round up the reindeer to deliver the gift themselves.

Of course, the trip won’t be easy, as Arthur doesn’t know the first thing about traveling around the world, and Grandsanta’s memory  and sense of direction aren’t what they once were. Not to mention the sleigh is more than a little rundown, making for an even more turbulent trip around the world.

Admittedly, even with its originality, the plot may be a bit on the predictable side. But while you may be able to guess the ending, the film succeeds for the fun Arthur, Bryony and Grandsanta’s adventure provides, and for the dimensions it gives to its characters.

Arthur ChristmasMost Christmas films go the easy route when depicting jolly old St. Nick, and simply showcase the jovial and giving aspects of the character and call it a day. But Arthur Christmas does a great job at showing some extra depth in all four of its Santa Clauses.

Malcolm, the current Santa, has lost his passion for the job, and simply sticks around for the glory. Steve wants to prove himself as a worthy successor to his father and a visionary for reinventing how Santa does his job, but is also vain and a little selfish. Grandsanta not only provides comic relief and crazy old man antics, but also has questionable motivations, as he seems to be helping Arthur equally as much for his own ego as he is for the sake of doing the right thing. Even Arthur, who is admittedly simplistic by comparison, works well in winning over the audience’s sympathy, and in making the whole plot work. Someone has to care about a forgotten child on Christmas after all, even if Santa himself doesn’t. Because of the added character dimensions, the emotion at the heart of the film rings all the louder.

On top of all of this, the film is also very well animated. I admit that watching an Aardman film that doesn’t utilize stop-motion can seem a bit odd at first, but Arthur Christmas quickly wins you over with a visual vibrancy that is consistently impressive. It may not match the sheer technical sheen of a Disney or Pixar flick, but it’s not too far off, and the character designs are fun (I find Steve and his Christmas tree-shaped goatee especially amusing).

On the whole, Arthur Christmas is certainly one of the most enjoyable Christmas films to be released in quite a long time. It has a sincerity to it that many holiday movies of today completely disregard, and the characters, humor and originality at hand are entertaining enough that you may forget that you’re watching a Christmas movie, and simply get sucked into watching a great film.

 

7

Shaun the Sheep Movie Review

Shaun the Sheep Movie

One really has to wonder just how Aardman does it. Animation is always a painstaking process, and that’s doubly true for stop-motion. Yet somehow, Aardman makes it all look effortless. This is true even for the awkwardly-titled Shaun the Sheep Movie, which in many ways couldn’t be simpler, yet the sheer craftsmanship behind it, as well as Aardman’s sense of humor, turns it into something great.

Shaun the Sheep Movie is based on the the television series of the same name (minus the “Movie” part), it itself a quasi-spinoff of Wallace & Gromit (a younger version of Shaun appeared in A Close Shave, but the Shaun seen in the series and this movie seems to have no canonical connection). Like the series, the movie focuses on the titular Shaun and the rest of his flock of sheep, as well as Bitzer the dog, and the farmer who owns them (aptly named “The Farmer”).

While the show usually sees the antics of Shaun and the rest of the animals during their ventures on the farm when the Farmer is away, the movie instead sees Shaun and the gang on a mission to rescue the Farmer, after one of their pranks goes awry and inadvertently sends the Farmer – sleeping inside of a trailer – to the big city, which ultimately results in him bumping his head and coming down with a case of amnesia.

Shaun, Bitzer, and the rest of the gang’s journey to rescue their friend won’t be easy. Not only does the Farmer have no memory of his former self, but an over-zealous animal control worker is determined to capture any animals that might be running loose on the city, including Shaun and his friends.

It may not sound like much, but Shaun the Sheep Movie quickly becomes something brilliant, due to how well it crafts its story and humor through animation alone.

Shaun the Sheep MovieWhen I say “animation alone” I mean it. Much like the Shaun the Sheep series, there is no spoken dialogue in Shaun the Sheep Movie whatsoever. Shaun and his flock may baa, Bitzer barks and growls, and the humans might make the occasional grumble, laugh, burp or whistle, but no words are ever spoken in the film (aside from some of the background songs, which never really mesh with the rest of the film, unfortunately).

Despite the absence of dialogue, Shaun the Sheep Movie still manages to make you care about the characters with some genuine heartfelt moments and story development. Nothing ever needs to be said.

Shaun the Sheep MovieShaun the Sheep Movie is also very funny, with non-stop sight gags and physical comedy, not to mention plenty of clever film references. You’d be hard pressed to find another kids movie that references Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver and Breaking Bad.

It’s additionally a lovingly-animated film. It showcases Aardman’s brilliant ability to combine relatively simple character designs with extravagant movement. Like all of the best Aardman works, it will regularly leave you wondering how every scene was made.

Shaun the Sheep Movie is simply a good time. It’s charming, funny, and smart. But it’s also sweet and sentimental when it wants to be. And it does it all without saying a word.

 

8

Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death Review

A Matter of Loaf and Death

By 2008, the Wallace & Gromit series of films had come a long way from their humble beginnings as part of Nick Park’s graduation project in A Grand Day Out. The titular duo starred in two subsequent short films in the 1990s (with both of them winning Oscars), and in 2005, Wallace and Gromit starred in their first (and so far only) feature-length film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (which added more Oscar gold to Wallace and Gromit’s belts). It seemed only fitting that an additional short film in the series would be made. Enter A Matter of Loaf and Death, currently the most recent entry in the series, the bad news is that it’s also probably the duo’s weakest outing. On the plus side, given Wallace and Gromit’s track record, being their weakest adventure is still far from a terrible thing.

In A Matter of Loaf and Death, cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his faithful and silent dog Gromit have become bakers. Business is booming for their baking business, partly because Wallace’s machines make delivering baked goods a snap, and partly because a serial killer has murdered all the other bakers in town.

One day, Wallace ends up saving the life of a woman named Piella Bakewell, a former spokesmodel for a baking company. Wallace is instantly smitten with Piella, but Gromit has his suspicions, and Piella’s dog Fluffles tries to warn the duo of Piella’s true intentions.

A Matter of Loaf and DeathIf there’s any real problem with A Matter of Loaf and Death, it’s that the story seems to be a modified version of A Close Shave’s plot. Wallace falls in love with a woman, who also owns a dog, with one of them being the villain and the other a victim. At least A Matter of Loaf and Death switches up the who’s who of those roles, but the plot can feel like a bit of a rehash. Granted, the stories of Wallace and Gromit were never the major selling point, and were hardly groundbreaking, but simply reusing the same basic template of a previous episode seems beneath the series.

I’m also not quite sure how I feel about Wallace and Gromit entering darker territory with the story being built around a serial killer. It’s true that A Close Shave and Curse of the Were-Rabbit parodied horror films, but they actively avoided going into darker areas (the main victims in Were-Rabbit were farmers grieving over missing prized vegetables), so it just feels a bit out of character for the series to go into an all-out murder plot.

With all that said, however, A Matter of Loaf and Death is still a winner in entertainment. The visuals remain breathtakingly detailed, and continues the series’ trademark “how did they make that?” moments at just about every turn. The slapstick, gags, movie spoofs, and action scenes are all fun, and Wallace and Gromit themselves remain some of the most likable characters around.

The rehashed and strangely dark scenario may prevent A Matter of Loaf and Death from reaching the same heights as its predecessors, but it’s still a lovingly crafted, entertaining work from Nick Park. Let’s just hope it doesn’t remain Wallace and Gromit’s last outing. A new film starring the duo is always more than welcome.

 

7

Wallace & Gromit: A Close Shave Review

A Close Shave

By 1995, Wallace & Gromit had etched their place in the history of animation and in British popular culture. After the acclaimed “The Wrong Trousers,” the popularity of Wallace and Gromit reached new heights. The third adventure of the cheese-loving inventor and his mime-like dog would be A Close Shave, and it ended up receiving similar acclaim to its predecessor.

In A Close Shave, Wallace and Gromit are now running a window cleaning service. During one night, a sheep escapes from the back of a truck, where other rustled sheep are being held captive. The stray sheep sneaks into the house of Wallace and Gromit, while the truck’s driver, a sinister dog named Preston, takes note of their window cleaning advertisement.

The next day, Wallace and Gromit are asked to clean the windows of a wool shop owned by a woman named Wendolene. Wallace is instantly smitten with Wendolene, but unbeknownst to him, Wendolene is the owner of the dog Preston, and is the unwilling accomplice of his sheep rustling schemes. Preston is determined to find the missing sheep (whom Wallace later names “Shaun”), and eventually frames Gromit for his crimes.

A Close ShaveA Close Shave boasted the most detailed plot for the series up to that point. The two prior shorts only included one additional character to Wallace and Gromit themselves (the cooker robot in A Grand Day Out, and Feathers McGraw in The Wrong Trousers), both of which were silent. Wendolene is the first character aside from Wallace to speak in the series, and she is joined by Shaun, Preston, and an army of sheep as part of A Close Shave’s more extensive cast.

The story proves to be a lot of fun, with the additional characters helping to differentiate it from its predecessors, as well as giving the animators even more to work with.

As is the norm for the series, A Close Shave is impeccably animated. The thirty minute short pays homage to action and horror films, and rivals The Wrong Trousers in its absurd attention to detail. Every moment of the film displays the hardwork and craftsmanship that went into every frame, with the action scenes in particular having you scratch your head in wonder how they could ever be made through the process of stop-motion. Much like its predecessor, the climactic action scenes are truly something to behold.

A Close Shave goes toe-to-toe with The Wrong Trousers, and manages to recreate many of the elements that made the duo’s previous two shorts such delights. The plot is still simple and cartoonish, but the delightful animation turns it into something more. It seems whenever the names Wallace & Gromit show up, you can expect Aardman to bring their very best.

 

8

Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers Review

The Wrong Trousers

Of all the Wallace & Gromit films, the duo’s second adventure, 1993’s The Wrong Trousers, is probably their most beloved outing. In many ways, it set the standard for the rest of the Wallace & Gromit films that followed, and helped define creator Nick Park’s unique animated storytelling.

The Wrong Trousers takes the simplistic duo of Wallace and Gromit, and places them in arguably their most intricately animated adventure ever. Gromit’s birthday has arrived, and Wallace’s present to his dog is a pair of “Techno Trousers,” a highly expensive pair of walking pants to take Gromit on his walks. But the price of the trousers, along with various bills, leaves Wallace in need of money, so he decides to let their spare bedroom out.

A strange, silent penguin named Feathers McGraw ends up staying in the room. Unbeknownst to Wallace, Feathers is actually a wanted criminal, who later plans on using the Techno Trousers (and an oblivious Wallace) as a means to steal a valuable diamond, while also plotting to have Gromit run away from home, as Gromit grows suspicious of the penguin.

If the plot sounds silly, it’s because it is. The Wrong Trousers cleverly combines the series’ charming characters with a spoof of Hitchcock-style suspense movies. It’s the animation itself that makes The Wrong Trousers a wonder to behold.

The Wrong TrousersEvery moment of The Wrong Trousers will have you wondering how it was made. The opening scene alone gives audiences a glimpse of Wallace’s eccentric lifestyle, as he is awakened by a contraption that pulls him from his bed, dresses him, and eventually lands him in his favorite chair just as his morning toast pops from the toaster and is blasted with projectile jelly. To see it all in motion is close to miraculous.

Then there’s the aforementioned heist, which has Feathers manipulating the Techno Trousers to send a sleeping Wallace up and down the walls and ceilings of a museum. And the finale, which sees a parody of the many train-based chase sequences in film history on the top of a model train, is astonishing.

The character models have been improved from A Grand Day Out, now that Nick Park had funding from Aardman from the get-go, and the higher production values really show. Wallace now has is more defined character design that’s still used today, and the short allows for some great uses of facial expressions and emotions on the characters.

Being only a half hour long, the delights of The Wrong Trousers only last for so long, but you’ll likely enjoy every minute of it. It’s true that there’s not a whole lot story-wise that feels outside of animation norms, but in terms of the animation itself, The Wrong Trousers is an absolutely stunning work.

 

8

Wallace & Gromit: A Grand Day Out Review

A Grand Day Out

The Wallace & Gromit series of films (consisting of four shorts and a feature-length motion picture) have become a staple in stop-motion animation, and in British popular culture. At its core, Wallace & Gromit  is about the contrast between the simplistic and the complex, which always seem to come together in the series. Perhaps none of the Wallace & Gromit films showcase this better than their debut short, 1989’s A Grand Day Out.

A Grand Day Out sees eccentric inventor Wallace and his silent dog Gromit on a bank holiday, and they’re deciding where to go for a picnic. When Wallace decides to take a break from searching for a vacation spot and have some tea time – complete with cheese and crackers – he notices that there’s not a block of cheese left in the house.

With all the stores closed for the holiday, Wallace comes up with the idea to spend their holiday “somewhere where’s there’s cheese.” After briefly thinking of a location, Wallace and Gromit decide to go to the be-all, end-all of cheese locations, the moon. And so Wallace & Gromit begin construction on a rocket ship so that they can take a trip to the moon and sample some cheese.

The story is both simple and whimsically perplexing. When all is said and done, the half hour short really is about little more than Wallace and Gromit wanting to try some cheese, yet the simple plot is turned into something more fanciful by becoming a trip to the moon. It really only goes into that direction because it can. Being an animated film, why not go to the moon when craving some cheese?

Admittedly, the character models for both Wallace and Gromit look a bit rushed, as though creator Nick Park hadn’t yet finalized what he wanted them to look like. Wallace in particular looks less fleshed-out in regards to character design than he would in the subsequent films. The character models as a whole look clumpier than they would in future episodes, complete with visible finger prints on their plasticine models.

While the characters look a bit crude compared to later entries, the way in which they move shows a level of dedication and complexity that is rarely approached in animation, even (if not especially) by stop-motion standards.

Take, for example, the scenes where Wallace and Gromit build their rocket ship. Wallace draws up the blueprints, with the camera focusing on the character’s process of drawing. As his hand and pencil glide across the paper, an image begins to appear as though Wallace is actually the one doing the drawing. Another scene has Wallace and Gromit working in unison with a saw and hammer, respectively. As Wallace moves the saw in and out, Gromit hammers in some nails whenever the saw retracts. It’s mind-boggling to think about where the animation even began with such scenes.

A Grand Day OutThis becomes all the more impressive when you gain the knowledge that Nick Park create a good deal of A Grand Day Out by himself. The film started production in 1982 as a graduation project, with Aardman studios hiring Park some three years later, leaving him to finish the short part-time, with Aardman eventually helping finish the short and releasing it (which ultimately lead to its titular characters becoming the faces of the animation studio). By the time it was released in 1989, actor Peter Sallis (who voiced Wallace for a mere fifty Pounds) was shocked that Park actually managed to finish the film.

A Grand Day Out is admittedly much slower paced than the subsequent Wallace & Gromit shorts, and given that it’s also shorter than them, it ultimately means that not a whole lot happens during its running time, despite the extravagant concept of a moon-based vacation. Some may find that it doesn’t hold up as well as its successors due to its slower nature. But the attention to the fine details of the film are obvious from the get-go. And for those who are thrilled by the technical craft of animation, A Grand Day Out remains a  wonder.

 

8