Tag Archives: Chicken Run

Flushed Away

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


flushed away 213] Flushed Away (3rd November 2006)

Budget: $149 million

Gross: $178,120,010

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%

I hated Flushed Away.

As a 12 year-old kid in 2006, I hated Flushed Away.  I was there opening weekend, with my dad and brother in tow, sold on the fact that it was Aardman and that Aardman had never done me wrong before.  I was hyped, I was ready, and I was left feeling dissatisfied and confused.  I did not like Flushed Away and I had no idea why.  The whole film felt off, it felt wrong, it didn’t feel like Aardman.  Let’s not forget, I was going off of DreamWorks films at the time and, though I was about to enter my stupid teenager phase where one rejects everything they loved as a child out of hand (because they are stupid teenagers), their joints with Aardman were the only confident signs I had of them putting out quality during this winding down period in our relationship.

And I didn’t like Flushed Away.  But it was Aardman!  Aardman aren’t supposed to make bad stuff, with the exception of Angry Kid!  That confusion and disappointment stuck with me.  It stuck with me for a real long time.  It festered and festered, until it manifested itself as full-blown hate.  There may have been good elements to Flushed Away, but the sheer level of disappointment that the film had visited upon me had completely crushed those elements.  Therefore, I was absolutely dreading this part of the retrospective, exactly as much as I was Shark Tale (OK, maybe not, but close).  Expectations were low, I had never really gotten over the film the first time, and this series is only 1 month removed from the commonly accepted nadir period of DreamWorks Animation.

So… I strongly dislike Flushed Away.  I don’t hate it anymore, the pain has finally subsided, I’ve come to terms with my grief, and I managed to have some fun with it because it’s not a bad film or anything, but I still very much dislike it.  The reason why is basically the same as the reason why I hated it when I was young and impressionable.  Flushed Away feels like DreamWorks trying to make an Aardman film, or Aardman trying to make a DreamWorks film, take your pick.  Considering how much the two companies allegedly butted heads with one another during production, which represented the final straw in relations between the pair, I’m not surprised that the film feels that way.  For example, this was supposed to be a pirate-based film, but DreamWorks nixed the idea believing back in 2001 that pirate movies didn’t sell (although Aardman would get to make their pirate movie after all, but we’ll get to that shortly).

Yet, at the time, not a single credited writer on the film is actually affiliated with DreamWorks.  Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, for example, were responsible for The Likely Lads franchise, many episodes of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and the entirety of Porridge.  Simon Nye, the film’s other credited writer, was responsible for Men Behaving Badly.  Yet the whole film feels so… American, like 27 DreamWorks execs were all crowding around each writer’s shoulder micro-managing every line for maximum commercial appeal.  As such, there’s this awkward compromise between the cheap, easy, toilet and pop-culture obsessed humour of DreamWorks films and the witty, clever, pun-focussed, heart-felt and quintessentially British humour of Aardman productions, where the latter is done as cynically as one can manage and where the former vastly overshadows the latter to such a lowbrow degree.

The film making said incredibly American view of England, by having the villain be heavily obsessed with tacky British predominately royal memorabilia, really doesn’t help proceedings.  It instead marks them out with a giant arrow of “Look!  British things!  Y’know?  Fish and chips, World Cup, broad working-class accents, ‘ello ‘ello, Benny Hill and all that!”  It feels insulting, references that broad, that obvious, the equivalent of a Yank thinking that all of England is exactly like the London they read about in a particularly useless encyclopaedia from the mid-1970s.  Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run were similarly classically British, but they felt more genuine because the films weren’t stopping every five seconds to show off their British credentials.

Case in point, the moment where Roddy realises that Sid will ruin his solitary bachelor lifestyle if he hangs around is backed by, of all sodding things, “Yakety Sax”.  Why?  Who knows; the incredibly short daydream sequence doesn’t seem to reference any part of any Benny Hill sketch, the show that basically appropriated that track for its own ends.  It’s just there because a funny music cue was required, for some reason, and since this is supposed to be a British film we should pick the most British song available!  To be honest, I’m pretty sure the only reason why there isn’t a bonding sequence between Roddy and Rita set to “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is because rights to songs by The Beatles are really bloody expensive.  It’s all so cringeworthy.

Speaking of, music cues in Flushed Away are primarily of the licensed variety, another creative choice that reeks of studio interference from upon high (note how nearly every important scene in both Shrek movies covered so far has been backed by licensed music).  Roddy’s trip down the loo to the sewer is backed by “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” by JET because the song sounds cool to soundtrack scenes to, although anybody who actually knows the song and tries to get caught up in it will be driven mad by the awkward editing to keep it at some instrumental part.  There’s a chase set to “Bohemian Like You”, again seemingly because it’s a cool song to soundtrack scenes to.  They are, I’m not disputing that, but the score is perfectly serviceable in and of itself and, again, their inclusion doesn’t have any reason beyond being cool songs to back things with (there’s none of the irony or joke-enhancing choices present in Pirates!’ usage of punk, ska and Flight Of The Conchords).

Well, unless they’re sung by the film’s most obvious comic relief, The Slugs.  See, unlike with Wallace & Gromit, which kept the appearance and usage of the bunnies to a minimum lest they run the risk of becoming this, Flushed Away keeps forcing in a group of slugs purely for the kids to laugh at.  They always just happen to be hanging around somewhere for a quick gag involving their high-pitch screams or Alvin & The Chipmunks singing of pop songs.  Also unlike the bunnies, they feel really shoehorned in, like one of said 27 execs noticed that the script didn’t have enough pop culture references or kid-exclusive gags and that must be rectified ASAP!  They only do the pop song thing twice, the other two times they do original compositions (which are eeeeehhh… “Ice Cold Rita” has Hugh Jackman singing going for it, but that’s about it), but they both feel incredibly unnecessary and a scene in which a group of slugs sing “Mr. Lonely” is going to feel like it’s going out of my way to annoy me, regardless of whether it runs for 30 seconds or 10 minutes.

When I keep mentioning “broad” in service of describing the humour, I mean that it’s lowest common denominator stuff.  Extended fart and burp jokes – which Wallace & Gromit also indulged in once or twice, admittedly – toilet humour in the literal and figurative sense, pop culture references where a thing is presented to you and you are expected to laugh due to recognising it – like a moment where the character voiced by Hugh Jackman tries to decide between wearing an Elvis Presley suit or a Wolverine suit – even extending to frequent, frequent cameos and references to past Aardman productions, to the point where it starts to feel less like little Easter eggs for more attentive and knowledgeable viewers and more like blatantly calling out their much better works to excuse what we’re watching.  “Look!  We made Wallace & Gromit!  DreamWorks made all these films!  We’re not normally this sub-par, honest!”

The puns, meanwhile, the bread and butter of many an Aardman production, feel really cynically calculated rather than genuine.  A groaner of a bad pun can still elicit laughs if the person who is writing or delivering the pun is completely sincere in their telling of it; this is why Curse Of The Were-Rabbit is a near-non-stop gag-fest.  Flushed Away’s puns, by contrast, feel… forced.  Again, the majority of the film feels like DreamWorks trying to make an Aardman film but not getting why Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit worked.  So you get threatening mob bosses telling their goons to put people “on ice” and then we find out that he means literally freezing them in an ice machine, followed by the even worse “prepare to meet your maker, your ice maker!”  But they just end up landing with loud notable thuds instead of laughter-in-spite-of-oneself.

At least they’re not lazy, though.  A surprising number of the gags here are extremely easy and very lazily delivered.  Le Frog and his ninja frog henchmen are all walking French stereotypes and whilst you can make those jokes funny, as Muppets Most Wanted proved this year and which this film manages to do once, here they just feel like yet another “Oh, look!  We’re British!  We get British customs!  Look at how British we are!”  Roddy’s fall from Toad’s lair involves not one unfortunate crotch shot, not two unfortunate crotch shots, but four unfortunate crotch shots, one straight after the other for about 20 seconds of film time; a gag the film does again later on but with slightly different parameters.  There’s a brief bit of random uncomfortable racism where Roddy accidentally dials a Chinese takeout and his attempts at communicating his situation are, thanks to the operator’s accent, hi-lariously misinterpreted as ordering Chinese food.  It’s all just so cheap.

And yet this film cost $149 million to make!  Not that all of that made it into the finished film, you understand.  The constant re-writes and do-overs ended up inflating the budget to nearly twice the combined budgets of Chicken Run and Curse Of The Were-Rabbit.  There was an initial trailer that predominately showed Roddy having hamster man-servants named Gilbert and Sullivan, only for them to be dropped totally in the final film.  Of course, this isn’t a problem in and of itself, I almost guarantee you that every animated film undergoes some giant fundamental change at some point during its production, but the film does such a poor job at hiding that.  The central story dynamic remains about the same throughout, think a gender-swapped version of “Common People” by Pulp played straight, but everything else is a giant mess.

For example, Toad honestly feels kinda pointless to overall proceedings or, at least, as the big overall villain.  As somebody who needs to pair Rita and Roddy together and drive the opening segment of the film, he makes sense.  As somebody who becomes a big overall villain who wishes to wipe out the entirety of the sewer so that we can have our big action finale?  No, he doesn’t, especially since said finale feels entirely rudimentary instead of earned and its existence requires the heroes to be unbelievably wilfully stupid.  The main emotional centre of the film, the burgeoning respect and all-but-explicitly-stated romance of Roddy and Rita, also feels false.  I never really bought it, that derogatory “Common People” comparison sticking with me a lot, and I never really found Roddy or Rita to be particularly interesting or consistent characters – Roddy flits back and forth schizophrenically between out-of-his-depth and try-too-hard-suave, whilst Rita spends all of her time talking tough but needing immediate rescue and help whenever action kicks off like a female Scrappy Doo.

As for the animation, which one would think I was OK with seeing as I’ve spent forever tearing into the script and neglecting it, it hasn’t aged well.  I appreciate the attempt to recreate the Aardman claymation style in CGI, to try and keep the house style, but a hell of a lot of the enterprise, Up-Top especially, now looks like an even lower-quality version of the graphics used to power Telltale Games’ Wallace & Gromit series.  Character models clearly try and recall the handmade plasticine models that became the Aardman calling card, but the bodies move too fluidly for the purposefully cut-and-replace mouth movements to gel with.  Rita, Roddy and Sid also look way too human.  In fact, let’s not beat around the bush, all of the cast look way too human, to such an extent that the good rats may as well just be human.  This technique would work if it were primarily limited to Roddy – him being an upper class pet, it would make sense for him to have humanlike movements – but everybody does it, to such an extent that they may as well just be human.

I get why Aardman chose to go CG.  The story takes place in a sewer, that requires a lot of water, you do not expose clay figurines to water, that is a stupid idea.  But considering the film we have, one that feels less like Aardman and more like a very sub-standard DreamWorks film, I can’t help but feel like it was yet another demand from upon high by the overlords at DreamWorks.  A desire to standardise even further, homogenise a unique voice in search of the more lucrative general audiences, and seeing as the script has received the sufficient amount of corporate retooling why not extend it to the whole style of animation too?  I know that that didn’t happen, but it still makes a tonne of sense considering the film Flushed Away ended up as.

To its credit, Flushed Away is still Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, comfortably at that.  Many reviewers threw around lines like “Best Animated Film Of The Year”, although 2006 wasn’t really a good year for animated film in Empire’s defence.  Many reviews were still relatively soft in the praise department, though; one even noting that “the Aardman magic is missing.”  And then there were the negative reviews, more than Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit combined; many lamenting the loud broad nature of the film, the generic nature of the film itself, the extreme anthropomorphism of its cast, and the fact that it was set in a sewer because The Guardian can be really unprofessional with its reviews a lot of the time (a little something to remember next time you want to take me to task for my review of Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie).  For the first time, Aardman looked human to a lot of critics.

Financially… well, the film was doomed to failure as soon as its budget swelled to $100 million, the highest grossing Aardman film is still Chicken Run ($224 million) and a film isn’t considered a success until it has doubled its budget.  Nevertheless, Flushed Away marched ahead to a noble failure anyway.  The film debuted in third in America, behind a limited release Borat and a wide-release The Santa Clause 3 (side note: Santa Clause 3 happened, folks).  Paramount execs (DreamWorks’ new distribution partners, let’s not forget) tried to spin that as a surpassing of the expectations and therefore a good thing, but the arrival of Happy Feet in Week 3 and Flushed Away’s resultant descent into oblivion more than likely put pay to that.  Overseas, the film performed strongly, particularly in France and Aardman’s native Britain, enough to get the film technically in the black, but the film still caused DreamWorks to ultimately take a $109 million write-down due to its near-total failure domestically.

So, the film was a failure, it didn’t knock every critic for six, and it took a giant bath at the box office.  Combine these factors with the termination of their contract with DreamWorks, and the very public television failures of Creature Comforts USA and Chop Socky Chooks, and one could be forgiven for thinking at the time that Flushed Away was like some kind of Grim Reaper herald for Aardman.  That’s a pretty big tailspin to pull out of, after all.  Fortunately, as evidenced by the fact that we have a Shaun The Sheep movie due from them in a few months’ time, things managed to turn around for the company after making that breakaway.

For starters, in 2007, they found a new partner for feature-filmmaking, in the shape of Sony Pictures Animation (who, if Hotel Transylvania 2 and Genndy Tartakovsky’s Popeye end up as successful as I think they will be, are about to become a major known player in this field).  They even renewed their contract with them in 2010 – although they seem to be on their own again for Shaun The Sheep after production on Pirates! ended up more than a little troubled.  In 2011, they returned to the all-CG way of doing things with Arthur Christmas and, this time, managed to earn critical acclaim and a relatively decent profit.  Then, in 2012, Aardman finally got to make their pirate movie, in the shape of The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!  That too received critical acclaim, although an apparently bowlderised US edit and a release date quite literally the week before The Avengers meant that its box office gross was underwhelming.

So though they may struggle to reap giant financial rewards, Aardman have clearly gotten their mojo back since their “amicable” split from DreamWorks.  More importantly, you watch either Arthur Christmas or The Pirates! and one can clearly get the sense that Aardman are getting to make the films that they want to make again.  Those films are quintessentially British in a way that doesn’t involve them having to loudly announce and restate that fact every five minutes in the broadest and most obvious way possible, like we’ll run it out of town if it doesn’t have sufficient British credentials.  Those films have a heart and soul that makes their puns and ridiculously silly humour charming and endearing instead of boring and annoying.  Those films are clearly made for the filmmaker’s artistic benefit instead of aiming for the widest possible audience.

In other words, they’re everything that Flushed Away is not.  Again, I don’t hate Flushed Away, I found enough funny sequences (especially the “he’s gonna steal your boat” exchange and the frog mime) to feel like I wasn’t wasting my time, but it is an awkward attempt to marry two distinct styles and identities that don’t gel well with one another.  It doesn’t feel like an Aardman film, and it’s not a very good DreamWorks film, so the result is just the worst of both worlds, coupled with the disappointment of it being a sub-par Aardman film.


Investors in DreamWorks Animation were likely spending a lot of 2006 scratching their heads.  Not only had the company’s two films for the year underperformed, they had managed to drive away the part of their company that was capable of bringing in critical acclaim.  Many investors, more than likely, were getting nervous.  Had DreamWorks already lost it?  Was their investment for nothing?  Then Shrek The Third happened and, like all sequels to still-lucrative properties, set everyone who was focussed on the bottom-line’s minds at ease.  Next week, in our final instalment before a week’s hiatus, we take a look at the moment where I all but cut the cord with the company.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch has got a great car, yeah what’s wrong with it today?  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


wallace gromit11] Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (7th October 2005)

Budget: $30 million

Gross: $192,610,372

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%

I should not need to introduce you to Wallace & Gromit.  If you are British, you should know who Wallace & Gromit are, they’re a national goddamn institution.  Their influence is so great that they pretty much single-handedly saved the production of Wensleydale cheese.  They are so beloved that their fourth proper short film, A Matter Of Loaf And Death, the first in thirteen years, was the single most-watched programme on Christmas Day 2008, beating out both the soaps and Doctor Who.  They’re so re-watchable that the BBC has been re-running every single one of their shorts at every holiday opportunity for what feels like the last decade and a half and nobody ever complains.  You can probably quote half of A Grand Day Out right now if you tried hard enough, and everybody remembers the toy train chase from The Wrong Trousers.

Therefore, a movie really was the next logical step for the world-famous duo.  They’d already had three acclaimed short films, a collection of short shorts for the BBC’s Christmas 2002 line-up and now-defunct website Atom Films, a movie compilation released in American theatres that still managed to gross one million 1996 dollars, and they had raised the profile of Aardman animations so substantially that their breakthrough into worldwide stardom, Chicken Run, was able to be sold to audiences as “From The Creators Of Wallace & Gromit.  There wasn’t even a worry that it was too late for a Wallace & Gromit film, the characters were that beloved and the films are that timeless that Aardman could drop something Wallace & Gromit related tomorrow and the Internet, but especially me, would just meltdown in tearful anticipation or joy.

The movie in question, The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, emerged in October 2005 to universal critical adoration with only 9 reviews that can be considered negative being published from professional sources.  Several critics included it in their best films of 2005 lists in some way, shape or form (and, lest we forget, 2005 was a pretty competitive year in regards to great movies).  It won Best British Film at the year’s BAFTAs, swept the year’s Annie Awards taking home the prize in every single category it could have entered (and shutting out everybody else in the Voice Acting In A Feature Production category), and scored DreamWorks Animation their second (and currently last) Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Financially, the film did decent business domestically, considering the weird ghetto that stop-motion animation falls into at the box office – it opened in first place, before dropping quickly, most likely being dispatched by the end of October and the release of, urgh, Chicken Little; closing at about $56 million.  Overseas… let’s just say that it was an enormous success (especially in its native United Kingdom where it ended up having the third biggest opening weekend of the year, behind Goblet Of Fire and Revenge Of The Sith in that order, and managed to three-peat during an insanely competitive October) and leave it at that.

Of course, the film was not as successful as DreamWorks Animation wanted it to be.  After all, Chicken Run made $30 million more worldwide than Curse Of The Were-Rabbit did, was a genuine full-on bona-fide hit domestically, and Chicken Run wasn’t the big screen debut of a widely beloved pair of characters.  Never mind that Chicken Run cost $15 million more than Curse Of The Were-Rabbit and that $192 million against a $30 million budget isn’t exactly chump change, Wallace & Gromit underwhelmed for the parent company.

This split viewpoint on the film’s box office fate strained relations between Aardman and DreamWorks, which were the absolute last thing both parties needed.  See, production on The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit was more than a little troubled.  Contrary to the prior times he’d worked on Wallace & Gromit shorts, the film’s co-writer and co-director Nick Park was practically swimming in notes from higher-ups demanding changes.  They wanted the design of Wallace’s car to look cooler, they insisted that the British-ness of the accents be toned down to make them more understandable, every instance of the word “marrow” had to be re-dubbed as “melon” for the US release as DreamWorks thought that Americans would have no idea what the characters were on about otherwise (and, yes, that means that characters start referring to “your prize melon”), and there are rumours (that I can’t substantiate) that DreamWorks even tried replacing Peter Sallis as the voice of Wallace; well-known actors like Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter were cast in support roles as a compromise.

Unsurprisingly, Aardman would unofficially split from DreamWorks barely 11 months later (officially in January of 2007), on the eve of their latest release, Flushed Away (which we’ll get to in a fortnight), and with two films of their five film contract unfulfilled.  Flushed Away is more than likely the source of a lot of these grievances, a lot of the company even moved to America to work on that film’s CGI-only existence, but it’s clear that DreamWorks, a company that had previously chased Aardman for years in order to get a co-production deal with them, were negatively influencing the company in many of its facets.  Not maliciously, Nick Park admits that it was more about them trying to make sure their films played well at the box office, but still enough to potentially cause problems with the end product.

Not that you would know the film had a strained production if you watch the thing.  For The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit is as near-perfect a film as one could ask for.  Seriously, this film is 84 minutes long and there is pretty much nothing wrong with it; it’s airtight, almost non-stop in the gag department, gorgeously animated and shot, bursting with a tonne of heart, and I can find little wrong with it.  It is as close to perfection as something can get.  This also leads me to the annoying issue that I don’t really want to talk about it.  Not just because my motivation to write has vacated the premises since I returned to university, but mainly because the film is so great that just watching it is a far better usage of one’s time than me sitting here slowly picking it apart and boringly explaining why it works so totally.

Therefore, we’re gonna do something a little different for this week’s instalment.  Instead of going through a straight list of reasons why the film works, backed up by clips that may or may not be relevant to that particular paragraph, I am going to embed the film from YouTube below this paragraph and you are going to take 84 minutes out of your day to watch it; that will basically do my job for me.  Or, if you’ve already watched the film and know it in and out, you can instead use the below embed to follow my time stamps.  I’m going to pick out certain scenes that best epitomise why this film works and briefly look at them in a case study format.  And, yes, time stamps because finding individual YouTube clips is getting considerably harder the longer this series goes on for.

Right, either watch this incredibly low-quality stream or start following the time stamps!

0:00:29 – 0:01:37 Immediately, as in it’s the very first thing we see after the requisite studio logos, we are treated to a photo montage of the relationship between Wallace and Gromit.  It’s a short sequence, wordless, and often silly, but it very quickly establishes their characters, their little idiosyncrasies and the strength of their bond.  It’s also a reference to how all three of their shorts began – a shot of the wall in all three and a pan across a photograph of the pair in the latter two – but, crucially, the call-back isn’t the whole point of the scene.  It’s not just a do-over of a classic scene for you to point at and recognise, it serves its own purpose and tells its own story.  Most importantly, it’s earnest.  Yeah, the set-up gets stretched to create some funny laughs out of it, but there’s so much genuine heart in it that you immediately buy the relationship before you’ve even seen the pair physically.

Obviously their bond and relationship is shown and re-stated frequently throughout, via actions as well as being told (something that, say, Madagascar didn’t really achieve because it spent the majority of its runtime having its cast snipe at one another for laughs), but the way in which the film just speeds through this initial set-up for new viewers without it feeling like a backstory dump or like we’re skipping out on details is just masterful.  And for long-time viewers of the duo, it’s the kind of heart-warming fan-service reveal that could leave the more emotional in tears of joy.  That may or may not have happened to me when I saw it at the cinema on my 11th birthday in 2005.

By the way; yes, the wall-of-text-breaking embeds are now different Wallace & Gromit shorts instead of anything from the film.  I wasn’t kidding when I said that finding clips from it on YouTube is really bloody hard.  Do you want to see the first Were-Rabbit transformation scene backed by Kid Cudi, of all goddamn things?  Thought not.  Accept this and move on.

0:11:14 – 0:17:12 There is a lot that one could talk about here, but I’m going to zero in on two things specifically in the interests of time and because I’ll come to another one later on.  First, again note how quickly the film establishes the characters of Victor Quartermaine, his dog Phillip, and Lady Tottingham.  How the parallels between Victor & Phillip and Wallace & Gromit are clear but not beaten over the head; how much of pompous, self-entitled jerk Victor is whilst being a laugh riot instead of just being irritating; the connection that Wallace and Lady Tottingham have, and how the film is able to play it as something to put stakse in (vital for later on in the film) but not so much as to think that it’s true love between the pair; the way that it gives a lot of the bunnies individual characteristics so that they’re not just a nebulous “cute bunny” force…

I could go on, but you get my point.  Curse Of The Were-Rabbit is ridiculously good at establishing characters and setting up dynamics as quickly as possible.  Most of the time it takes just the character design, the attached voice, one action and one line of dialogue to convey that information; Totty has ridiculous hair and a haughty (and broad) upper-class accent but is also one-hundred percent genuine with her pleasantries and manner-of-speaking which indicates her upstanding citizenry, whilst Victor’s portly belly and crooked nose betray his slimy, uncaring and villainous nature well before his pompous choice of greeting and overly-theatrical-yet-contemptuous courtship of Totty make it more abundantly clear.  The speed of these set-ups gives the film more time to wring every last possible piece of material from them.

Which brings us to, second: do you notice how British the film’s humour is?  I’ve been sat here for a while trying to figure out the best term to describe it and British is the one that I keep coming back to.  Now, obviously, we’re not the first or only ones to pioneer jokes based around puns, word play and misunderstandings and then to juxtapose them with silly and slightly broad pieces of physical humour; but I feel we’re the only ones who do so with this, well, feel.  Like, everything feels restrained, but not overly so.  The “…in an hour?” and toupee jokes are funny, but the film doesn’t attempt to make them supremely obvious gut-busters or anything; the toupee one, especially, goes the obvious route and then has a more subtle second punchline that catches viewers off-guard with just how funny and rather clever it is.  Whilst the physical gags, like the bunny on Victor’s head, benefit from crackerjack timing and just the right compromise between broadness and subtlety.

It’s really hard to explain in words why the feel of the film, humour and not, is so uniquely British.  It’s just one of those intangible qualities that you just get when watching the film.  Can you imagine what this would have been like if it were made by Americans?  Like, no offense, Americans, I love the non-insane parts of you, but do you really think you’d be able to make a film like this if you tried?

0:26:00 – 0:30:09 OK, I picked this scene because it best exemplifies the way that Curse Of The Were-Rabbit truly makes the most of every last shot.  Note how the majority of shots in this church sequence carry some kind of visual joke, from the obvious – Totty’s background angel wings and stream of light which is openly called out – to the more subtle – the shot straight afterwards where the camera positions a gardening tool directly behind Victor’s head to make it look like he has devil horns.  The cross-fades/match-cuts in and out of the scene and how near-seamless they are, a technique I always appreciate whenever it crops up.  The fact that all of the background extras blink at some point during the scene, even if they’re not doing anything else.  It’s all of these little things that make the world of the film feel more alive, and demonstrate the love and effort poured into every single frame – not just from the thumbprints that you can occasionally see on some of the character’s models.

0:31:23 – 0:32:42 Following on from that, we get a scene that takes those techniques and skills that were applied for comedy not two minutes earlier and applies them to a straight horror scene.  The Were-Rabbit shadow created by Gromit’s ears, the ominous fog, the deathly silence, the clear setting-up of the environment to worry the viewer when stuff changes, the final release with a monster jump scare…  It’s a great example of how the techniques cross over if well used and how a legitimately scary sequence can come straight after one of the film’s funniest gags and not have the result feel tonally jarring.

Also, yes, I picked this so that I can have it on record that 11 year-old me jumped out of his skin at the carrot scare when he saw it in the cinema and that nearly 20 year-old me has still not gotten over that fact.

0:43:04 – 0:47:18 Or, y’know, I could’ve just chosen this scene and shown how the switch between horror and comedy works so fantastically in a scene where such a switch occurs pretty much every other second.  Ah, well.  That lets me briefly touch on the character expressions.  Note the last 20 or so seconds of the sequence where Victor’s absolute shock-filled terror turns to a confident evil-scheming smile as Gromit slowly sinks back in his chair.  See how smooth that change is?  Instead of quickly switching from pose-to-pose, that extra attention to detail goes into both actions to make the whole thing that much more menacing.  It encapsulates the best moments of the film’s animation, for me, where they put in the extra detail and work to make certain expressions and actions carry more weight.  It’s why I can’t not find the times where Gromit walks like a dog adorably funny, because of the specific way his legs are animated.

Are you aware that there are 700 different shots in Curse Of The Were-Rabbit that involve CGI in some way?  No?  Well, that’s exactly my point.  The integration of CGI and stop-motion in this film is so near-seamless that I mentally kicked myself when I found out that sequences like the floating bunnies in the Bun-Vac and the rolling fog were accomplished with CG instead of stop-motion.  Like, duh, of course I should have figured that out but it was so convincing!  Likewise, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Were-Rabbit transformation was achieved with CG instead of stop-motion.  You’d be wrong.  There aren’t even any CG augmentations made to the bit, it’s all done in stop-motion, as demonstrated by this featurette embedded before the next time stamp.  That shot of the foot transformation?  That took a year.  A year.

Two things to take away from this.  One: in case it weren’t abundantly clear already, Aardman did not cut corners anywhere on this thing.  Two: if it’s good enough and it fits the art-style of the rest of the film as closely as possible, you can add little CG augmentations to a stop-motion animated film and nobody will be the wiser.  Laika would recognise this and put it to good work in 2012’s stunning ParaNorman (which, yes, is a thing I did have to bring up because ParaNorman deserves bringing up at every opportunity).

0:54:12 – 0:55:43 First of all, that cross-fade/match-cut between Totty and the cloud is something I have just now noticed and subsequently fallen in love with.  Now, very quickly (because my word limit is coming up fast, here), let’s talk Hutch.  Hutch, upon first impression and especially if you were to know about his existence without having seen a frame of the film, seems like a giant walking alarm bell of studio interference.  A late-film comic relief character who only speaks in repurposed Wallace lines, whose appearance is hilariously cute, will likely be adored by kids and who turns up just as the film seems like it’s going to barrel down Serious Drama Street?  You can probably understand scepticism to him on paper and if said paper was the first time someone had heard of him.

All one needs to immediately discredit such notions is to watch this little scene.  See, rather than painfully contrasting Wallace’s heartbreaking breakdown over the possibility that he may remain a Were-Rabbit for good and sucking the drama out of the scene, Hutch instead compliments the scene.  The delivery and the line itself (taken from A Close Shave, unless I’m mistaken) may be excessively cheery, but that’s the point.  Hutch clearly sympathises with Wallace and Gromit in this situation but, because of the way the mind alteration has worked, that’s all he can say, it’s the only way he can say it and, as demonstrated a few seconds later, he can be a bit slow on the uptake with things.  It’s a very, very clever design choice that makes Hutch a full-on character, no matter how subtly, rather than just a hilarious joke machine – as, yes, it’s also a perfectly timed line with a perfectly timed delivery so one can’t be annoyed it.

And I’ve sailed past the word count limit.  Well, I would love to sit here and talk more about The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, about the other things it does right and favourite scenes and there was going to be a full-on paragraph where I just rattle off my favourite quotes from it, but you are busy people with places to be.  Specifically places that involve watching this near-perfect movie on DVD.  I mean, what kind of horrible person doesn’t own all Wallace & Gromit releases on DVD?  Not the kind of horrible people I want to know, at any rate!

In all seriousness, though, this film really is Aardman’s feature-length masterpiece and as near-perfect a film as one will find.  Due to the ailing health of Peter Sallis, this will most likely be the duo’s only trip to the big screen, but I am OK with that because it is one hell of a trip and to try again would be to risk that reputation.  I say retire Wallace & Gromit and leave the legacy to grow.  The series as a whole is near-perfect and it deserves to go out on the high that it has (or slightly diminished high if you want to count A Matter Of Loaf Or Death) rather than taking any further risks.


Although it wasn’t quite the financial smash they were hoping it to be, DreamWorks Animation still continued their absurdly financially successful streak of films with Wallace & Gromit, along with the prestige of the company’s third Academy Award – although that one belonged to Aardman more than it did DreamWorks.  They were riding a four-film and two-year streak that could seriously have made other studios wonder if there was any foot the company could put wrong financially.  Their next film would only add more strength to such a viewpoint and even win back some critical respect, too.  Next week, we enter 2006 and take a look at Over The Hedge.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch is using his power, he sells it by the hour.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Chicken Run

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


04] Chicken Run (23rd June 2000)

Budget: $45 million

Gross: $224,834,564

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%

Say what you want about DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, the man had vision at the start of the company’s lifespan.  Let’s not forget, the company’s (planned) first film was a biblical epic the likes of which had never been attempted in animation, let alone in Hollywood at all for a good 30/40 years prior.  He jumped feet first into the wholly-CG realm well before any other Pixar imitators.  He got the company to throw money behind a buddy-comedy adventure that time has been much kinder to than contemporary critics and filmgoers were.  He had a real vision for his animated company; he wanted to rival Disney but, quite clearly, wanted to do it on his own terms with films that weren’t just pale imitations of what Disney were churning out.  He wanted an animation company that could hop from genre to genre, animation style to animation style, all aimed at a slightly older filmgoer instead of merely pacifying the youngest, but brought together under one roof with a company name that people could look at as a sign of quality, build trust in the consumer that their time and money weren’t going to be wasted.

So of course one of the first things that Katzenberg would do upon co-founding the company would be to hunt down, sign to a contract, and inject a rather large cash flow into cult British stop-motion animation company Aardman Animations.  Why wouldn’t he?  Prior to Katzenberg knocking on their front door, Aardman had built up quite the reputation in their near-three decade existence as Britain’s premiere animation studio with such creations as Rex The Runt, Morph and the Oscar-winning short (that would later be expanded into an ad campaign and later still full-on television series) Creature Comforts (1989).  They also made the iconic music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” (1986) and, weeks before the DreamWorks deal was officially announced, they also released Steve Box’s stunning animated short Stage Fright (1997).  But, of course, they didn’t truly start making giant waves with the public until A Grand Day Out (1989) introduced them to Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit, their household name status becoming truly assured with their follow-up shorts The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995), which both also won Academy Awards.  The company was on the brink of superstardom, all it needed was a film that could announce its presence to the world.

Again, enter DreamWorks.  By the time the deal had been signed in December of 1997, Chicken Run had been in pre-production for a good year and already had the financial backing of Pathé, and the critical prestige of Aardman (and particularly Chicken Run’s three-time Oscar-winning co-director Nick Park) meant that practically every American studio with money to throw around was desperate for a piece of the pie (the box office success of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s Anastasia a few weeks earlier, at a time when it seemed like any non-Disney animated release was a license to throw millions of dollars into a big ol’ fiery pit, may have also helped somewhat).  In the end, though, Katzenberg won out through sheer, bloody-minded persistence; he’d been courting the company since he first saw Creature Comforts.  It seemed like a perfect marriage, both companies even extended their deal, as Chicken Run was wrapping up production, for another four feature films.  Later history would show this to be far from the case (there’s a very good reason why their new films are being released primarily by Sony Pictures Animation), although a squabble over the film’s score would offer a brief glimpse at the creative differences that both studios would dissolve into, but at the time this was basically all leading up to a fairy-tale kind of ending.

And it did.  It really did.  Chicken Run opened at the beginning of the Summer, with its only competition being the disastrously performing Titan A.E., entering the charts at number 2 (behind Me, Myself & Irene).  The film proceeded to ride that complete lack of competition to a six week run in the Top 10, where the most it dropped between weeks was 40% in Week 5 when Pokèmon: The Movie 2000 replaced it briefly as the big new animated movie on the block, a domestic total in excess of $100 million and slightly-larger than that foreign total as well.  It even out-grossed Disney’s official entry into their animated classics canon for the year, The Emperor’s New Groove, and was only kept from being the highest grossing animated film of the year by Disney’s other animated film for the year (retroactively added to their animated classics canon later on), Dinosaur.  Critically, it was universally applauded, so much so that DreamWorks actually launched a campaign to get the film nominated for Best Picture.  It failed, sadly (Chocolat got in over it, if you’d like a reason to get really angry today), but it has been said that the film was popular enough with Academy voters for it to lead to the creation of the Best Animated Feature award for the next ceremony.  The film also failed to pick up the Annie Award for Best Animated Film because, well, it came out in the same twelve month window as Toy Story 2.

But other than the unfortunate shut-outs with regards to awards (seriously?  F*cking Chocolat but not Chicken Run?), this was basically the outcome that multiple hokey underdog stories use for their feel-good endings, only in reality and fully-deserved.  I was six upon the VHS release of Chicken Run and even I felt a tiny little something upon seeing the Aardman logo preluding a feature-length (not that I would have understood the full significance, obviously, I was still only six).  Growing up, my parents were very generous to stock the “please, for the love of God, pacify the bugger the five minutes” VHS collection with an armada of cartoons.  Disney films, BBC cartoons, Toy Story, Tom & Jerry collections, Looney Tunes collections, all that stuff, so I had a pretty early introduction to Wallace & Gromit.  The beauty about them, as is the beauty with most of Aardman’s best work, is that they work on multiple levels.  They’re not aimed specifically at families or children or anything like that.  Like damn great movies, they just aim to tell good stories with the knowledge that everybody, regardless of age, gets something out the best stories.  So, as should surprise no-one, Chicken Run ended up on regular rotation when it hit VHS.  It was funny, fast, linked in terms of tone and style to Wallace & Gromit, and I always had an affinity for stop-motion animation.  The fact that the DVD we eventually traded up to contained extensive clips of practically every Aardman short ever made beforehand admittedly helped matters.

The thing that I was dreading, though, upon sitting down to watch Chicken Run for this feature, the first time I have watched the film in at least 4 years, was that my earlier obsession with the film during my youth would dilute much of its impact.  For the longest time I couldn’t watch any classic episode of The Simpsons because my near cult-like devotion to a Season 4 boxset that I got one Christmas, and any of the numerous showings of any episode on Sky1 and Channel 4, had stripped most of those episodes of their humour and entertainment value.  There was a part of me that was worried I’d be left sitting on the outside of this film, mechanically looking at its deeper meanings and such rather than being drawn in and becoming invested in proceedings.  As mentioned just a few moments ago, though, the best Aardman works work on multiple levels with the same level of enjoyment being gained no matter which level you end up looking at it at.  And that ended up being true of Chicken Run, many of its jokes may have diminished from over-consumption as a child, but I was still able to be entertained because, thanks to my older age, I could truly grasp the multitude of ways the film ends up working in.

For example, the mood, structure and feel of the film are very classic.  Despite being a millennial release that was in production for the entire back-half of the 90s, Chicken Run feels even older than that.  The obvious comparison, primarily because it’s an affectionate parody of it, is the 1963 classic The Great Escape but it goes further than that.  The whole film has the feel of classic Hollywood and, more specifically, the kind of films that crop up on Channel 4 when they need to fill a couple of hours of television time during an early weekday afternoon.  I realise that that could read as an insult, but it’s really not.  There’s a warm, inclusive feeling to the film that lacks from most animated films these days.  Unlike, say, The House Of Magic or Planes or anything like that, Chicken Run aims at a general audience instead of just the youngest of children, and whereas that could lead to a bland or just plain lack-of-an identity it ends up working excellently.  It feels classic, a film out-of-time, like if The Great Escape was made by British filmmakers and filtered through that off-beat mind-set we used to be so good at.  It’s why none of the jokes feel out-of-place or tonally misjudged, whether they be a practical hurricane of poultry-based puns delivered by rats Nick and Fetcher, some well-timed physical comedy during the montage of escape attempts near the beginning of the film, or a bit where the chickens realise that they’re all for the chop and Babs knits herself a woollen noose.  It all fits the all-ages mood and the British touch keeps any of them from coming off as obnoxious or ill-fitting, most of the gags being rather underplayed, really.

Speaking of that mood, of a film that feels (again, very much in a good way) older than it is, the animation, much like most of Aardman’s stop-motion creations, feels very stuck in the late 80s and early 90s.  The way that the film’s imagery and colour-scheme seems rather washed-out, the low-key lighting of most scenes, I might have even seen some film grain, at points.  I’d like to use the phrase “charmingly rustic”, because that’s the one that keeps sticking out in my mind right now, but I’m not sure it fully fits.  It conveys the positive opinion I have, though.  Many animated films, particularly in this age of CG, are often on a mission to have “the most graphics” or to just blindly copy the style of whatever the latest hot animated film was; unsurprisingly, it dates those films pretty quickly (for example, this clip from TMNT was from a film that released in 2007).  Yet the Aardman style still looks pretty darn good.  The decision to shoot at 20-frames-a-second instead of 24-frames-a-second in order to save money does cause a bit of a stiffness here and there, but it adds to the charm, more than anything.  The works of Laika may have surpassed Aardman’s stuff technically in the years since, but there’s a cosy feel to Aardman’s productions that I like.  It may have something to do with my having grown up a devoted Aardman fan (you are looking at one of, like, ten children who actually stuck with Chop Socky Chooks for more than 45 seconds), it may not, but it’s there and it’s very much a plus.

As for things that I didn’t notice until this go-around?  The way the film handles scale and stakes.  Chicken Run is actually really clever in this regard.  The film is very small-scale, although there’s the really large cast of extras, there are only nine prominent characters and even less than that that the film expects you to full invest in.  You become worried for the nameless extras because Ginger is worried for the nameless extras and because Mrs. Tweedy is an unrepentantly evil person.  It gets that not every character needs a name, arc and recognisable character trait for you to be worried about their outcome; if it’s shown to be important to the main character, like how the continued survival of the chicken community in a freer land is to Ginger, and the film makes an effort to demonstrate why that’s the case, then it is expected that the audience will swiftly follow.  Also helping matters is just how quickly the film sets up the price that failure to escape will have on these characters; literally the first scene after the credits montage involves the death of Edwina, played dead straight at that, showcasing just how real the stakes are to our cast.  It’s splendidly well-done story work.

But that scale also manifests itself in more visual ways.  What struck me first, above all else, was the shot of the camera pulling back to show the entirety of the chicken farm in one image as the title fades into view.  I realised how small the map of the world’s film actually looked, how there’s very little space, how all of the huts barely looked like they could fit one chicken let alone twelve, how each of its landmarks look barely a stone’s throw away from one another.  But then we switch to the viewpoint of the chickens and there seems to be real distance between huts, how the courtyard (for lack of a better term) suddenly does seem like it could support an entire herd of chickens, and how every hut actually ends up more like a TARDIS than the thing we just clapped eyes on.  It should seem inconsistent, especially whenever Mr. Tweedy opens one of their roofs to inspect what’s going on, a mess of scene geography, yet strangely it isn’t.  I think of the little one-take scene where Ginger is walking through the hut the other chickens are turning into a makeshift plane and my first thought doesn’t go straight to “how on earth could all of this be happening in that tiny hut?”  Because the film does such an excellent job at communicating just how big the scenery and sets are and seem to the chicken cast, it makes it much easier to go along with because the film never truly breaks that scene geography, instead flitting between different viewpoints simply due to the angles and placements of camera shots.  Now, in fairness, this works better in certain scenes than in others, specifically the height of the chickens compared to the Tweedys never truly feels consistent or convincing, but it’s still much less of an issue than it could have been because, again, the world is so brilliantly constructed.

I guess I should also admit that it wasn’t until this viewing that I grasped the not-exactly-subtle debts that World War II paid to its production design.  Before you start laughing, I would like to remind you that it had been a very long time since I’d seen Chicken Run and that, for some utterly bewildering reason, I was never properly taught about World War II until I hit secondary school.  Are you all finished judging me?  Good.  So the production design borrows very heavily from World War II POW camps, with some Concentration Camp elements thrown in for good measure.  Now, yes, this is because the film is an affectionate parody/homage (take your pick) to The Great Escape, but it also helps bleed into the scale and stakes stuff I’d just mentioned.  Although the place is never exactly an oasis, it ends up becoming rather multi-purpose, perfectly fitting the mood of whatever tone the film wants to go with.  And, in practically every shot outdoors, the fact that the fence is nearly always in view creates a constant reminder of just how close freedom truly is for the cast.  The fence uncomplicated but very effective in its required in-universe design, much like many POW camps.  Plus, you know, there’s the fact that Mrs. Tweedy’s chicken pie machine and plan to turn all of the “vile, loathsome little” chickens into pies calls to mind The Final Solution somewhat and basically makes her Hitler.  It all adds into the stakes without overriding the film too much, there’s just enough of a gap between the subtext of the WWII design and the overriding prison break narrative that one can enjoy the film without appreciating, or getting uncomfortable at, the parallels.  Again: the benefits of aiming at a general audience instead of one specific group.

Of course, Chicken Run isn’t perfect.  In fact, having watched it so much as a child and this being my first viewing in years actually seems to have made it easier for me to identify the flaws in the film.  The plotting, specifically, is very generic and thuddingly obvious.  It’s paced fantastically, something that’s not exactly a given when directors jump from shorter-form productions to feature-length (as just one example, both Inbetweeners films suffer from pacing issues), and it’s all executed with a tonne of heart and love but it still feels perfunctory at times.  “And now here’s the scene where the seeming answer to everyone’s prayers appears… and now here’s the action scene where we demonstrate how much of a threat the pie machine is… and now it’s the All Is Lost Moment, complete with dramatic thunder and rain because of course.”  One can call the beats to the second.  It’s not much of a problem, primarily because the film instead packs a lot of fun beats into its characters to make up for the lack of originality in the plotting, but it still feels too generic; like Peter Lord & Nick Park and the film’s screenwriter, Karey Kirkpatrick (who pops up frequently throughout DreamWorks’ history; we’ll come back to him), were operating out of some kind of “My First Feature-Length Screenplay” guidebook to be safe.

Also, and maybe I’ve just been spoilt by my years of ingesting as much of the animation as I can have time for, but I think the voice acting is very hit-and-miss.  On the hit side, especially on the hit side, there’s Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Tweedy (who I am just going to assume was cast purely on the back of Blackadder II because, c’mon, you know it makes sense) who plays every line damn near perfectly and her refusal to ham it up all of the time actually helps sell the character as even more threatening than she could have been.  Tony Haygarth as Mr. Tweedy bumbles with half-clueless ineffectualness brilliantly, Benjamin Withrow as Fowler does a dead-on “Back in my day…” ranting old veteran voice but also manages to get that same voice to deliver sincere emotional heft when he congratulates Rocky for helping sabotage the pie machine, whilst Timothy Spall and Phil Daniels (yes, really, I was surprised too) easily slide into the snarking comic relief roles whilst still, with a little help from the script, managing to imbue the characters with actual character instead of just pun-delivery.

Where things fall down is with regards to the leads.  Mel Gibson, who plays Rocky the Rooster, isn’t bad, he’s certainly far better than a man having to deliver the majority of his lines over the phone sounds like he’d be, but he does really undersell a lot of the material.  His character demands for him to be more boisterous, more showy, more American than Gibson and/or the people directing his performance seem willing to go.  It works for when his character development changes him to be more humble, when he develops a conscience, but less so for the time he spends otherwise.  The real issue comes from Julia Sawalha, who plays Ginger.  She’s really flat most of the time, there’s a lack of energy and of real emotional connection.  A lot of her lines, whether they’re an upset cry to the heavens, an excited reveal of a plan, or a tender opening up to Rocky, are delivered in the same very underplayed and often-lifeless fashion and it really took me out of the experience.  The same relatively-detached underplaying that worked for Mrs. Tweedy doesn’t work for Ginger; Ginger needs some heart and passion invested in her line readings which either Sawalha didn’t want to do, couldn’t achieve, or had directors who weren’t looking for them in the first place which is the wrong way to go as it turns out.

Finally, and this is the case for a lot of films in general but I still feel the need to bring it up, I don’t buy the romance between Rocky and Ginger, nor do I think it really needed to happen.  I understand why everyone involved felt like it did, Rocky needs to have his shameful exit at the two-thirds mark and then needs a reason to make a big heroic return in the finale and what quicker way than to have him and Ginger become attracted to one another, but it still feels wholly unnecessary.  Hell, I basically just explained the fact that it was basically done for obvious plot’s sake rather than any natural reason.  Them hooking up just feels like something that everyone felt just had to occur because “that’s how these things go, I guess,” but it’s still not really an excuse.  The film could have just had them turn into becoming close friends instead of lovers, the romance starts at the halfway point with a dance and then Rocky getting over his sexist tendencies and referring to Ginger by name, and it still would have worked in both a narrative and character sense.  Instead, they get together because that’s how these things go and deviation from “My First Feature-Length Screenplay” was expressly forbidden in its foreword.  It’s not a deal-breaker, it’s just a personal pet peeve of mine, not helped by how we’re over a decade on and this kind of thing still hasn’t really changed in the film industry.

I realise that I sound a bit down on Chicken Run, but I’m not.  Really, I’m not.  It’s a damn great, often brilliant film and one that certainly justifies the love, acclaim and fairy-tale ending to the pre-2000s Aardman Animation story.  The effects still hold up especially so since they’ve been bettered, the jokes still pack some laughs that a childhood of running the VHS on loop couldn’t suck the entertainment from, the setpieces are entertaining and exciting, and the film’s mood is endlessly relaxing and charming, the kind that is often lacking from most animated films nowadays.  Again, I was worried that revisiting this film would only result in a souring of the memories, but the refusal to just stick to one specific age-group (and the fantastic work that’s put into making that not create a tone that wildly slides all over the place) ends up showcasing even more aspects of its brilliance and discovering other, newfound reasons as to why it works.  It turns out that it’s not an outstandingly amazing film (unless the re-watch significantly lowers its quality, I have a feeling that Curse Of The Were-Rabbit will be closer to that), but it still succeeds at more than enough things, and its whole is great enough, for me to feel comfortable in the legacy that it’s established.


Chicken Run proved to be the breakthrough smash-hit that Aardman Animations deserved, a runaway critical and financial smash that forcibly announced their presence to the world outside of the UK.  For DreamWorks Animation, it was just the success they needed to counter-act the undeserving failure of The Road To El Dorado.  Of course, it wasn’t primarily produced by them and many may have wondered if DreamWorks were actually capable of long-term staying power on their own terms.  Their next animated feature would silence those critics immediately, firmly put the company on the animated map, and completely re-invent and re-shape the animated landscape for almost the entire decade afterward, for better and worse.

But before we get to that, we have to take a quick detour into direct-to-video land for a prequel to The Prince Of Egypt.  Next week, we shall take a look at Joseph: King Of Dreams, the sole direct-to-video entry in the DreamWorks Animation canon.

A brand new instalment in DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST.

Callum Petch guesses it’s seen the sparks a-flowin’.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Road To El Dorado

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation turns 20.  In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.


The Road to El Dorado Poster03] The Road To El Dorado (31st March 2000)

Budget: $95 million

Gross: $76,432,727

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 49%

1999 was a bad time to be anyone in animation not working for Disney.  Not in terms of quality, sweet merciful Maker no!  1999 gave us Tarzan, Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant, Fantasia 2000, Doug’s 1st Movie, Wacko’s Wish (the direct-to-video Animaniacs movie that not enough people give due credit to), the Dexter’s Laboratory TV movie Ego Trip, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.  That is the kind of embarrassment of riches that proves that today’s animated landscape can do much, much better.  Quality-wise, it was a near-untouchable year.  Financially… ever been stuck with a group of people in a factory as the place burns to the ground around you but you’re all still working as hard as you can because you just know the boss is going to fire you if you’re not pumping out quality products, even whilst your livelihood is going up in smoke before your eyes?  I’d imagine that being somebody who worked in feature-length animation in 1999 was kind of like that.

1999 was the year of bombs.  Tarzan made money, Toy Story 2 made money and South Park rode a nice wave of “AN ANIMATED FILM THAT SAYS THE F WORD?! WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!” to relatively decent financial success.  Everything else severely underwhelmed and most bombed hardFantasia 2000, primarily hobbled by Disney’s… interesting release strategy, only made a $10 million profit.  Doug’s 1st Movie opened in a landscape free and clear of any animated fare and still only made $5 million opening weekend before proceeding, like everything else released in April of 1999 regardless of whether they shared the same target audience, to be crushed by the enormous popularity of The Matrix (although I should point out that its planned direct-to-video nature meant that it actually closed after nearly quadrupling its budget).  The excretable The King & I (because even 1999 had to have one outright puke-stain) failed to make back even half of its miniscule $25 million budget.  And The Iron Giant, primarily thanks to incredible mismanagement by Warner Bros.’ distribution arm (rushed late Summer release with next to no advertising), crashed and burned at the box office so spectacularly that it all but shut down Warner Bros. Feature Animation (the only reason it didn’t is because the live-action/animation hybrids Osmosis Jones and Looney Tunes: Back In Action did even worse).

2000 would end up just as bad and, in addition to a pair of very notable Disney bombs in 2001 and 2002, spelt doom for traditional animation in feature-length films, but we shall address that situation fully in a month’s time when we reach it.  For now, let’s return to DreamWorks.  1998 was a very good year for the company with both of their debut films releasing to large box office success, critical adoration and, in one instance, an Academy Award.  Unfortunately, the previously-mentioned competitive desires of its CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg had left the company without a release for 1999.  The plan was for Antz to open in March of 1999 and for The Road To El Dorado to release in late ‘99.  Neither scenario came to pass, Antz due to the A Bug’s Life feud which I am officially done referencing in this series as of now, El Dorado because… well… production on this film was “troubled,” let’s put it that way.  Reports of changes of directors, changes of tone, changes in intended audience (this started off planned at a PG-13 level) changes of story (which is absolutely killer mid-production in animation as anybody with a brain can tell you) and that many of the people who were working on The Prince Of Egypt were also working on this at the same time paint the picture of a film that had sealed its own fate long before release.

Oh, and then there’s the trailer.  Tell me, does this look like the kind of film that you must go and see with your kids opening weekend?

So, unsurprisingly, the film opened soft in the first weekend of April: second place with $12 million.  And though it held rather steady over the following month (rarely dropping over 30% between weekends), it wasn’t a strong performer during the week and soft drops mean little if you opened poorly to begin with.  It closed at nearly $51 million in the US, half of what The Prince Of Egypt was able to accomplish just fifteen months prior, and took only half that in foreign markets.  To date, it is the only DreamWorks Animation film to not make its budget back.  Critics, meanwhile, weren’t kind.  They lambasted its generic looks, its safe and edgeless humour, its formulaic plot, the fact it it’s lightweight and has little going on thematically and, in one bizarre case from Empire magazine, the fact that the two lead heroes seemed more in love with each other than the woman that comes between them (in fact, it’s actually been rumoured that the original plan was for the film’s leads to be lovers with one another, before being dropped because this was the year 2000 and such a move was, and still is unfortunately, considered commercial suicide).  Plans to create a whole franchise out of the film were very quickly scrapped and history would seem to write this one off as complete and total failure.

History would be wrong to do so, though.  See, 90% of the time, films that are both critical and financial duds are duds for a reason.  But, on that rare other 10% of the occasion, they end up unfairly maligned and being bewildering passed over at the box office.  They’re gems that never really got a chance to prove themselves.  And I think I know why such a fate befell El Dorado.  See, critics adored Antz because it tackled weighty themes and they adored The Prince Of Egypt for being an epic realised in animated form with a tone befitting such ambitions.  Past DreamWorks Animations were, in a way, making a purposeful play for critical praise.  El Dorado instead was aiming to be a swashbuckling adventure throwback, a sort-of road trip flick, a buddy comedy and a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, all mashed-up and fed through the lens of a kiddie-fied version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.  It’s not trying to be deep, it’s not trying to be weighty, it’s just trying to be fun.  Of course, DreamWorks had proven themselves to be more ambitious than this, so critics were going to see this as a step back.  No wonder they were so hard on it.  Marketing, meanwhile, took the lighter tone to mean a license to aim at the youngest kids only, despite the film’s humour hemming closer to buddy comedies that are more enjoyable by older kids and especially parents.  No wonder most people stayed away.

It’s all especially a shame because The Road To El Dorado is a really good movie.  Fun is a rather undervalued commodity by a lot of people, but El Dorado has it in spades.  Real fun, proper fun, not the kind of “fun” that Transformers and its ilk traffic in.  This is a film that moves fast, where barely a minute goes by without something funny happening in some way, where proceedings are kept super lightweight and anything that threatens to bring that mood into something darker is near-immediately distanced and the party is back on.  It’s a film that wants to show you a good time, for you to sit back and let the witticisms, chase scenes, cons and overall silliness just wash over you.  And it owns that totally, which is why it works so well.  Plus, you know, the buddy dynamic is dead-on and excellently pulled off.

If you’re a regular visitor of the site, you’ll be aware that I saw and reviewed The Nut Job this past weekend.  I bring this up because El Dorado’s leads are rather similar to the lead in that film: they’re selfish, jerk-ish criminals who only look out for one-another and have little time for performing good or heroic deeds, but who eventually grow consciences for various reasons (Miguel due to bonding with the people of El Dorado, Tulio due to falling for a young native woman by the name of Chel who wants in on their scam) and end up risking their big scores to do the right thing.  In The Nut Job, this approach fails totally and just ends up creating an unlikeable dill-weed whose late-game change-of-heart rings false.  But it ends up working for El Dorado.  Why?  Well, one of the reasons comes from the fact that the two don’t remain jerks until the 80% mark, the film does a very good job of showing them slowly developing a genuine care for the city they plan on robbing.  If you’re going to do character work, you need to actually keep at it throughout the film, make it a thing whose progress you can actually track, and El Dorado does that very well.

The other reason is because El Dorado’s leads, despite being con artists attempting to swindle a mythical city out of their riches, are extremely likeable and entertaining guys.  You can do less-morally inclined lead protagonists, but if you want us to actually like them you need to make them entertaining (there is a very good reason why Guardians Of The Galaxy just made all of the money, after all).  El Dorado was created with the intention of making the show-stealing wacky, witty, and less clean-cut sidekicks that you normally see in animated films the lead characters and it works gangbusters.  These are two extremely funny guys whose frenzied life-partner dynamic is nailed totally, by both the script and their voice actors.  Tulio is Kevin Kline, so this outcome should surprise no-one who has seen A Fish Called Wanda, Miguel is Sir Kenneth Branagh which, again, should mean that this outcome surprises no-one.  They, in a rare case for animated movies (schedules and all that), recorded their dialogue together at the same time in order to better sell the rhythm, cadence and delivery of the material, improv in places and, overall, just better capture the chemistry the pair are supposed to have.  If you’re wondering as to whether it worked or not, here is the second half of the first scene the duo appear in.

They are a fantastic comic duo whose every bicker-filled interaction is hilarious, so the fact that they don’t start the film as paragons of virtue doesn’t matter.  They’re selfish and terrible, but they’re endearing.  They’re entertaining, and the fact that they’re entertaining is what makes it easy to care about them and to enjoy spending time in their presence long before their character arcs and development kick in.  If a character is entertaining or interesting to watch, the audience won’t mind the fact that they’re not stand-up folks and, thusly, your attempts to get them to care about the character will work superbly.  And so it goes here.  The dynamic the duo share is expertly conveyed, that sense of how much their partnership matters to one another being why its eventual crumbling carries some actual emotional heft and why its eventual rebuilding leads to a finale that can leave viewers with smiles for days on end.

Since it so effortlessly nails the buddy dynamic of the equation, the rest of El Dorado basically falls into place without much of an issue.  The whole movie, which lasts a brisk 90 minutes with credits, moves at a phenomenal clip, enough to let the fun of the whole adventure easily take one over but not so much that it screws up the pacing of the character arcs or the quieter scenes.  Action scenes are breezy and filled with fun little character cues to keep them from just being spectacle.  The comedy is of a very high standard; most of it, after all, coming from anything our two leads say or do but still finding time for some great pieces of physical comedy or silent eye-rolling snarking from Altivo, the horse that ends up inadvertently tagging along with Tulio and Miguel.  Chel (voiced with maximum sass and snarkiness by Rosie Perez) doesn’t get much to do but is a very fun compliment and foil to the dynamic of the two leads, and El Dorado’s high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante) is a good villain because the film knows how to pitch him; threatening when necessary but with a pathetic-ness and radical-to-a-fault devotion to human sacrifices that it can mine for comedy.

That being said, there are two little snags with El Dorado that can’t be traced back to its intended “Hey, folks!  We’re here to help you have fun!  Let’s all have all the fun!” nature.  The first is the animation.  It’s not bad, a large quantity of laughs come from a fantastic set of choices in regards to facial expressions, character poses and well-timed movements and framing.  What it is, though, in terms of raw quality, is average.  The colour palette is a bit muted, the scale never seems to be quite as big as the film wants it to be, there’s a lack of detail going about the backgrounds and props, and character designs themselves (with the exception of the lead duo and the “yes, they really did manage to get away with a PG for this” design for Chel) are rather uninspired and flat.  More problematic are the CG enhancements which are frequent and most have not aged well at all; the one decent one is early on with the barrels that the duo hide in.  Almost all of the gold is rendered in CG, with the team apparently writing an entirely new piece of software because they wanted the gold to look gold instead of a shade of yellow, and it just looks phoney.  Again, the film doesn’t look bad, especially where it counts for the comedy, just average and it’s especially bewildering since the film cost $25 million more than The Prince Of Egypt did and that still holds up as, in my opinion, one of the best looking animated films ever released 15 years on.

As for the other snag?  Well, this may get me lynched by some people, but the songs aren’t great.  I know, I know, “How DARE you insult the work of Elton John and Tim Rice!”  Look, their songs for The Lion King are iconic and exceptional, some of the best ever committed to a Disney film (and we all know that is saying a lot), I am not disputing that.  Unfortunately, that means that I have high standards for them, especially so when all of the ads heavily trumpet the fact that El Dorado has six new songs by the duo, and the songs in this film aren’t even in the same country as those standards.  They’re all just really, really forgettable and they really break up the pacing of the film.  Most of the time they back montages, which is understandable, but they end up causing the montages to run for way too long, as they kinda just kill time until the song finally winds itself up.  “Friends Never Say Goodbye” is a particular offender of this and also isn’t helped by being very noticeably on-the-nose lyrically.  They’re not terrible, they’re just highly unnecessary, over-long and not good enough to make up for those facts.

The Road To El Dorado, like many actually great films that go unappreciated by critics and the general public at the time of their release, has managed to attain a sort of cult classic status on the Internet, where the art of animation and cartoons are taken very seriously indeed, and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t relieved at that development.  It really does deserve a fairer re-evaluation by people, people who realise that a fun rollicking buddy-focussed adventure romp isn’t something to look down on and who haven’t been turned off by poor marketing (it even seems like some people at Disney were paying attention; think of Flynn and Maximus the horse in Tangled).  It doesn’t set any worlds on fire, it’s about as deep as the shallow end of a kiddie pool, and its animation isn’t exactly world-class, but The Road To El Dorado is damn great at what it aims to do: be fun.  It perfectly nails down the core relationship between Tulio and Miguel and, as a result, the rest of the film and the fun effortlessly slot into place to create a silly, breezy and highly entertaining 90 minutes.  It has no pretensions at being anything more than it is and I really appreciate and admire that kind of honesty in my films.  Honesty that I’m going to borrow because, frankly, the reason I really enjoyed this movie, and why it is way better than reputation suggests, is simply the fact that it is a tonne of fun and, sometimes, that’s all that one wants.  It’s a shame that audiences and critics circa 2000 didn’t seem to.


An undeserved failure with critics and the general public, El Dorado may have caused Katzenberg and the staff at DreamWorks Animation to get a little hot under the collar about their possible long-term staying power.  Fortunately, this was not the only film that they were involved in in the year 2000 and their next film, co-produced with a cult British animation studio, would give them the financial and critical praise that El Dorado lacked.  The animation studio: Aardman.  The film: Chicken Run.  Next week, we’ll take a good long look at the first of DreamWorks’ three collaborations with the creators of Wallace & Gromit.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

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