Tag Archives: Laika

The Problem With Illumination

…and, in fact, most animation studios in general.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

illuminationBy now, you should have been able to read my review of Illumination Entertainment’s Minions.  If you haven’t read it yet then firstly shame on you and why do you not want me to become successful?  But, in any case, here are the cliff-notes: it’s really funny, I had a load of fun, Scarlet Overkill is amazing, and the Minions themselves are still wonderful comic creations.  I really liked Minions.  Still do, in fact, despite whatever I end up typing in this article.  However, a nagging realisation has stuck with me since I got out of the film and it’s something that concerns me for the studio’s future.

I can’t really tell you what the difference is between Illumination and every wannabe-DreamWorks pretender to come along since the mid-2000s.

I mean, yeah, Illumination has Despicable Me, and that’s all well and good, but somebody asked me on Twitter whether they’d enjoy Minions as the humour of Despicable Me turned them off of those films and I honestly drew a blank when trying to describe what exactly was so special about the Despicable Me humour.  I’ve spent the last few hours re-watching clips of both films to try and figure out what makes the Despicable Me brand, in comparison to any other animated brand out there, and the most I can come up with is that it’s willing to be a bit more openly cartoony than most other animated features.  Sure, its character designs – and therefore, if the designs of The Lorax and the upcoming The Secret Life of Pets are anything to go by, the standard character designs of Illumination in general – are distinctive and unmistakeable, but that’s really all that makes Illumination stand out from the field.

Again, I really like Minions and I really liked Despicable Me 2 when I saw it, but I still can’t tell you what separates them from ten-hundred other American animated features desperate to become the next best thing, besides the fact that they’re really damn good at what they do.  The one thing that does sort of separate them, slightly wackier humour than is usual in today’s animated features, is even running the risk of being outdone by Sony Pictures Animation if Hotel Transylvania 2 is able to deliver on the promise that the underwhelming first film had – since that and the Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs series might finally change the studio’s reputation to something other than “Those People Who Helped Make TWO Abominable Smurfs Movies”.

Instead, they’re still just yet another animation studio making family films in a medium already drowning in animation studios making family films.  For example, tell me something that makes Hop different from any number of similarly-awful live-action/CGI hybrids from the mid-2000s besides the fact that this one paid Russell Brand money to voice act.  Anything at all.  This is an animation studio that managed to turn Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, a brilliant low-key cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive deforestation, into another loud whizz-bang CG animation that’s nearly indistinguishable from anything released in, say, 2007.

Just over a week ago, Illumination released the trailer for their next film, The Secret Life of Pets, which you can view above.  I really, really dug it.  It may have reigned in the wacky cartoony-ness of the Despicable Me humour significantly, but it also couched that in reality.  This was a trailer that got most of its laughs through exaggerating observations and ideas that we have about our pets, and its short little vignette form allowed it to maintain the quick pace that Minions has.  It probably wouldn’t be sustainable if it were a feature film exactly like this, but it’s a strong basis and, even with the usage of pop music (although I do appreciate the leftfield choices of Basement Jaxx and System Of A Down), it has a unique feel and personality that’s decidedly lower-key than most of today’s animation.

Then I read the film’s plot synopsis.  This is taken straight from Wikipedia.

Taking place in a Manhattan apartment building, Max’s life as a favorite pet is turned upside down, when his owner brings home a sloppy mongrel named Duke. They have to put their quarrels behind, when they find out that an adorable white bunny named Snowball is building an army of abandoned pets determined to take revenge on all happily-owned pets and their owners.

If you’re anything like me, your heart and enthusiasm promptly sank about 12 feet once you finished reading that.  It just bugs and irritates the hell out of me to see a film with as much unique and original potential the The Secret Life of Pets’ first trailer showcased, instead turn out to be – or, I should actually say, appear to be, since who knows how the actual film will turn out – an animated version of Cats & Dogs, with the blueprint of a million other animated films buried in it, especially Toy Story.  It could still be a great version of that loud whizz-bang CG animated family feature, but I’m tired of studios not trying to carve out an identity beyond “We make loud whizz-bang CG animated family features”.

I mean, it makes sense that Illumination have yet to establish a unique brand and voice, their founder is Chris Meledandri.  From the early to late 2000s, he was the President of 20th Century Fox’s Animation department, with him being a big part of the early years of Blue Sky Studios, another animation company who – despite having released films for the last 13 years – have still yet to carve out an identity besides “We make loud whizz-bang CG animated family features”.  That’s especially a problem because Blue Sky’s debut feature, Ice Age, actually did have a unique and distinctive voice and identity of its own, being more melancholy and reflective and (slightly) mature than other films that came along then and since, before the sequels (and everything else the studio has ever done) proceeded to stamp out the unique parts in favour of ridiculous cartoony spectacle.  WHICH IS FINE, but it means that I have yet to see a Blue Sky movie that has truly stuck with me besides that original Ice Age, because their films, even Epic’s attempt at an action-fantasy, don’t do anything that a hundred other animated features aren’t already doing.

That means that, in the 13 years that Blue Sky Studios have been releasing movies, they still don’t have any unique or discernible identity besides “That Animation Studio 20th Century Fox Owns”.  That makes them the studio equivalent of Silly Putty, they can mould and shape themselves into whatever they want to but they’ll never be their own unique thing because they’re too indebted to everyone else to have their own identity – which I guess does make them the perfect folks to make The Peanuts Movie after all (side note: PLEASE DON’T SUCK).  Blue Sky have had 13 years to break out of that mould, and they’ve instead continued to settle for being Another One in a sea of likeminded competitors.

But, really, this is more just a problem with animated films in general, right now.  Animation is a medium and therefore capable of so many things, so many stories, and so many genres.  Yet American and British feature animation, and the foreign ones that manage to get a release in English-speaking countries, is resolutely family and kid-oriented, to tie back into that post-1950 belief that animation is only for children.  But it’s patently untrue, the booming TV animation market should have dispelled that notion, yet we very, very rarely get adult or even teenage feature animation – the last one that got a wide release (which I classify as over 1,000 theatres) was 2009’s unfairly underrated 9, a PG-13 action-adventure that unfortunately bombed majorly because, well, animation is for kids, right?

It’s basically a self-perpetuating problem.  Feature animation is in a sort of rut – and I want to specify the “sort of” because some outstanding and all-time great animated features are being made and released – because it believes that feature animation is only “loud whizz-bang CG family features”, a belief reinforced by a public who reject anything adult that isn’t tied to a recognisable property (hence why The Simpsons Movie was a mega-success) but keep flinging money at these mostly interchangeable films – in writing this article, I discovered that Ice Age 3 and 4 have made $897 million and $887 million worldwide respectively – which undoubtedly prevents these studios from creating their own unique identities because, hey, why turn away free money?  And with foreign dollars being ever so important in today’s filmmaking landscape, and slapstick and spectacle translating flawlessly no matter the language, this probably isn’t going to change any time soon.

That’s ultimately a shame, because animation is capable of so much more than this, yet right now I honestly can’t tell you much of difference between any of the animated features that are not put out by Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Laika, or Aardman, and only Laika of those five is less than twenty years old.  Animation studios need to carve out their own different identities, they need to aim to create something special, something unique.  There really isn’t much separating Blue Sky Studios and Illumination Entertainment, at the moment, and this is not how things should be.  Blue Sky have been around for 13 years, so they’re rather set in their ways and identity by now.  Illumination are barely half a decade old.  It’s not too late.

Callum Petch can’t live on, live on without you.  Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Rise Of The Guardians

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been 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.


Rise-of-the-Guardians-image25] Rise Of The Guardians (21st November 2012)

Budget: $145 million

Gross: $306,941,670

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%

Rise of the Guardians is a bomb.  It is a big bomb.  Oh, sure, it doesn’t seem like it is, its eventual worldwide gross is double that of its production budget – the typical measure by which you determine whether a film is successful at the box office or not – but it is.  Domestically, the film took 10 weeks to scrape and claw its way past the $100 million mark, and the longer a film stays in cinemas the less money the studio actually gets (you can get a full-on explanation of that here).  Overseas, the film performed somewhat better but still not great, especially in comparison to prior DreamWorks films, and once the breakdown of the foreign dollar came in (and you can find out how that works here) DreamWorks still didn’t make a profit.  In fact, they had to take an $87 million write-down on the film, the first time they’d lost money on a project since Sinbad nearly a decade ago.

So, why did it bomb?  It’s not the fault of the film being bad – which was critically praised and is a damn good if crippled film, but we will get onto that later – so why did it just face-plant right out of the gate?  That’s what most of this entry is going to focus on because that’s our through line for the last sixth of this series and it could provide us with explanations for the box office prospects of the remaining pair of films in this series.  So, apologies for those of you who were hoping for an in-depth look at the film.  We’ll look at it if there’s time, because it’s a damn good film with a killer final 20 minutes, but for this series we need to examine the box office performance of the film rather than the film itself, unfortunately.

Full disclosure, here: since Rise of the Guardians is a relatively recent film, and was the first notable major underperformer that DreamWorks had seen in a decade, much of the stuff that I’m about to say is being referenced and sort of lifted from websites who, at the time, were filing think-pieces on this very subject not even 48 hours after the first weekend totals came in.  Many of the things that I will say here were theories that I had prior to going off and doing research anyway, but other writers’ reasons and thought processes helped open my mind a bit as to specificity.  So, with that in mind, I’d like to give credit to HitFix’s Gregory Ellwood and Animation World Network’s Ed Hooks for helping, thanks to their respective articles, shape my thoughts and theories for this article.  With that said, let’s dive in.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest reasons is that the budget for this thing is ridiculous.  Although it clearly makes usage of every last cent, $145 million for an animated movie in this decade is insane and unsustainable.  Yes, Pixar and Disney blow that amount on every film they make but, as we have previously touched on, they can get away with it.  Everybody else has realised that $150 million domestic isn’t guaranteed anymore, so they’ve purposefully started making films for less than/equal to $100 million to compensate.  That’s why Aardman’s The Pirates! In An Adventure! With Scientists! was able to recover from a dismal American showing, it only cost $55 million to make.

DreamWorks, however, continue to pump all of their movies with the same level of money, increasing the risk if one fails and regardless of whether said pumping is necessary.  If you’ve been following along, you’ll have been keeping track of the “Budget” segment of my article pre-amble and seen that no film post-Shrek 2 has come in at under $100 million.  Now, in certain cases, like with this film or the Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon series, that’s fine, as extra detail and money helps with the world and tone and such.  But for animated comedies?  Did Megamind really need a $130 million budget?  Despicable Me came in at $69 million and it looks way more distinctive and, arguably, better than that film did.  Or, in blunt terms, is there any reasonable explanation as to why the budgets for How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Penguins of Madagascar are separated by only $13 million?

That’s as good a link as any to my next point.  The budget thing is also systemic of a larger problem: DreamWorks still trying to play like it’s 2005, like they’re the only non-Disney/Pixar players on the Western feature-length animation block.  However, thanks to them blowing up the Disney dominance back in the early 2000s, more and more animation studios – and, specifically, distribution studios like Universal who are now more willing to get in the game – have now sprung up, creating further competition.  They started poking their heads above the water tentatively in the mid-to-late 00s, when Laika would release Coraline and Blue Sky Studios – obligatory pleading to PLEASE NOT F*CK UP Peanuts – would quietly become a consistent and reliable studio, but 2010 onwards has seen them burst on through en mass.

2012, in particular, saw new efforts from recent upstarts Illumination Entertainment (The Lorax), Laika (ParaNorman), and Sony Pictures Animation (Hotel Transylvania), as well as long-timers Aardman (The Pirates!), Studio Ghibli (The Secret World of Arrietty actually opened on nearly 2,000 screens in a rare display of genuine confidence in that brand from at-the-time distributors Buena Vista), and Blue Sky (Ice Age: Continental Drift), in addition to Pixar (Brave) and a resurgent Disney (Wreck-It Ralph).  When you also throw in DreamWorks’ other 2012 release (Madagascar 3), that is a crowded as hell schedule – one, relatedly, that has only gotten more crowded the further into the decade we get, which pleases me to no end – and one just cannot coast anymore.  The days of DreamWorks being able to guarantee butts in seats, regardless of the quality of their films, purely because there is nothing else available have long since departed.

Not to mention that each of these films carried with them their own unique, distinct, and marketable identity that didn’t just rely on brand recognition.  The primary trailers for The Lorax hit the “From the studio that brought you Despicable Me” and “Based on the story by Dr. Seuss” buttons, but also clearly outlined the premise and the film’s bright, candy-land colour scheme and art style.  Boom.  Sellable.  ParaNorman had that gothic horror meshed with broad comedy feel and identity front and centre, albeit with its darkest edges sanded down to make it more palatable to, for some reason, snobby stop-motion-averse mainstream audiences.  Boom.  Sellable.  Ice Age is Ice Age and came out when literally nothing else was in cinemas, Wreck-It Ralph slapped the videogame conceit over everything, Hotel Transylvania emphasised its loudness and physical comedy.

DreamWorks, however, still sell their films the same way they always have – some attitude, pop culture references, and licensed soundtrack for comedies; lots of flying, out-of-context gags, and emphasis of the 3D elements for more dramatic fare.  They don’t sell individual films so much as they sell the DreamWorks brand – Home is even suffering from this, even though I actually rather like its trailers.  This is fine for, say, a Madagascar sequel, because audiences already know what they’re getting and like what they’re getting and the trailer just needs to promise them more of the same, but becomes a problem when you’re trying to sell a new film, especially when you pump them out with the factory-like efficiency that DreamWorks do.

Here, for example, is the first trailer for Rise of the Guardians.

Now, that trailer does a lot of things right: it establishes a clear tone, introduces us to our main characters, has some mystery in there instead of simply showing everything off all at once, and it sets itself apart from most of the other animated features on the market.  Yet, simultaneously, it’s a major failure.  It relies too heavily on kids’ prior affection for seeing characters like Santa and the Easter Bunny teaming up to fight evil (more on that in a moment), it fails to properly establish Pitch Black and his motivations, our true lead character, Jack Frost, is nowhere in sight, and it doesn’t explain much at all.  It’s a tough line to walk when it comes to trailers, show too much and you negate the audience’s desire to see it but show too little and you do just as much damage, and Guardians’ first one, although it does a lot for me, shows too little to engage general audience interest who like to have more than the sketchiest sketch of an idea of what they’re getting into.

In fact, to link into the film itself, that belief that audiences would be enamoured enough by the idea of Santa, the Easter Bunny, Sandman, Jack Frost, and the Tooth Fairy teaming up to fight evil feels sadly outdated.  In the 21st Century, this worthless irritating and pathetic century, heart-on-sleeve sincerity and wonder is something that society very much seems to frown upon.  That desire to be a little cheesy, to have fun, to be sweet and nice is something that we, as a culture for some utterly confounding reason, have decided is beneath us and that we must laugh out of the room at every opportunity.

Instead, the only way we can accept enjoying these things now is with a sort of ironic detachment – hence why 80% of movie musicals spend their entire runtimes apologising for being musicals, why romance films are so po-facedly serious about everything, and why sci-fi almost never kicks back and has any fun anymore.  When something like that does come along, like this past weekend’s Jupiter Ascending because never let it be said that I don’t try and keep this column topical, everybody laughs it out of the room because we apparently can’t accept that sincerity anymore.  Maker, animation has quite literally only just gotten over this image problem, and we can blame that tangible attitude of Shrek for sending us down that path whilst thanking this Second Disney Renaissance for finally pulling the public back out of it.

Therefore, you present the general public with a film like Rise of the Guardians – a film whose marketing relies on kids’ prior attachment and desire to believe, and whose finale literally involves the villain being defeated by a scrappy group of kids believing in wonder with all of their heart with no cynicism or sass from the film (and it’s f*cking amazing, for the record) – then of course it’s going to open poorly at the box office and never truly recover!  Our society doesn’t foster that kind of genuinely sincere wonder and heart anymore, so most will just dismiss it out of hand and move on with their lives.

And then there’s also the tangible thing.  A common complaint that keeps cropping up in people’s excuses as to why the film did poorly or just in general conversation about the film: Santa’s Russian accent.  This is very much a creative choice that has baffled people, with some even thinking that that’s why the film failed.  Because kids are familiar with Santa, err, not being Russian and that would therefore turn them off the film totally.  I sort of get where they’re coming from, it’s the tangible element of a larger problem that not many people can totally figure out – in that the beefy, warrior-ised, badass designs of the Guardians fit their personalities and the more action-heavy moments but clashes with the sincere childlike hope of the rest of the film – but I highly doubt that it’s a reason all by itself for turning people away.

Finally, there was the release date: Thanksgiving weekend.  I get the idea, it’s the holidays and a big family movie is just the kind of thing that audiences are in demand for.  But, as we have previously talked about, thanks to the way they do business, DreamWorks movies aren’t Events like a Disney film or a Pixar film are.  They’re films that come out on a semi-regular basis and you either watch them or you don’t.  Even when the films are Must See viewing – and we’ve covered several of those in this series – their releases don’t carry that air, despite the millions of dollars that the company throws into marketing these things.  So whilst Disney can get away with releasing Tangled or Frozen over that weekend, DreamWorks can’t because, unlike Disney, Rise of the Guardians is not an Event Movie.

Hence why the thing basically died in fourth place opening weekend behind Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 (second week), Skyfall (third week), and Lincoln (third week), and just barely fending off Life of Pi by virtue of that opening on less screens.  All of those prior factors, with really sub-par marketing likely being the inarguable main reason and let us not forget general DreamWorks over-saturation, conspired to send Rise of the Guardians to an early grave.  Many of these are actually rather recurrent in the reasons behind DreamWorks’ other recent failures, which means that we might get more time each week to actually talk about those goddamn films properly, but that’s also a really worrying sign that the company doesn’t seem to be learning from its mistakes.  Rise of the Guardians is rather much Patient Zero for this recent commercial trajectory that DreamWorks have gone down and, for some reason, it’s been allowed to fester instead of being quarantined and dealt with.

So… with all of that said and sorted… how is the film?  I realise that I have pushed it to the background here, much like I did with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron way back when, but I needed to since, as we all know, this is the start of the spiral that DreamWorks are currently stuck in and to not talk about it is to do a disservice to this series I’ve been working on.  It is, however, a shame because Rise of the Guardians is very much worth talking about.  If I were writing for a website where 8 straight A4 pages of text could be presented in a way that wouldn’t cause one’s eyeballs to rip themselves out of one’s skulls and hightail it to the heavens to get away from the torture, I’d happily spend the next 4 pages talking about it.  Unfortunately, I’m about 1 full A4 page away from my word limit, so I’m going to have to be very brief.

Rise is a very good film that could have been an outstanding film had it not been forced to bow to the unspoken decree that ALL ANIMATED FILMS MUST BE LESS THAN 100 MINUTES, OR SO HELP ME!  The problem with it, and why it doesn’t work as well as it should for the first 70 minutes, is that it needs to be at least 2 hours and 10 minutes long instead of 89 (97 with credits).  Rise of the Guardians is a film that is stuffed to the brim with content and plot and story.  Not backstory, it’s smart enough to realise that you don’t need to waste time explaining the backstories of these characters, but story.  This is a film that needs to chronicle Jack Frost’s life, his emotional insecurities, to parallel that with Pitch Black’s insecurities, provide arcs for the pair of them, fill in the cast enough that the disruption of their daily schedules carries actual emotional weight, build a world, kill someone to raise stakes, cause the viewer to actually care about the kids who will factor into the finale, provide several suitably exciting action beats, and provide enough scenes of the guardians just hanging out together so that one gets the sense of how they are outside of the film, among many other things.

Surprisingly, it pulls off more of this than I was expecting – the Jack Frost stuff is brilliant, the parallels between him and Pitch are called out in dialogue more than action but it still works gangbusters and is far better done than it is in How To Train Your Dragon 2, and it nails the kid stuff spectacularly which is why the ending works so insanely well (more on that in a paragraph or two).  Unsurprisingly, though, it’s not totally successful, mainly because it never ever slows down.  How can it?  It’s got way too much content to have to get through, but it’s all necessary, so it has to pace itself like a drag race, never once letting up on the gas.  This does mean, though, that much of the first two-thirds of the film don’t click as they should – in particular, Sandman’s initial death should be a majorly heartbreaking “we are not f*cking around here” moment, but we barely ruminate on it enough for it to have any real impact.

There are chunks of film missing, basically.  The slower moments, the connective moments, where we ease up and relax with our characters.  They do exist, but they’re brief and hint at the film it could have been if there was more of that breathing time.  The best sequence not related to the ending involves the rest of the guardians helping Tooth Fairy with her job of collecting children’s teeth, because it allows the characters to just relax and be themselves.  Admittedly by turning this exercise into a silly competitive mini-setpiece, but it still feels genuine.  It deepens the cast, establishes their bonds, helps the viewer invest more, and the film needed more of that.  There just quite literally isn’t the time to.

Fortunately, though, the film f*cking nails its ending.  Seriously, the entire final 20 minute stretch, from Jack trying to help Jamie re-ignite his belief in Santa and the other Guardians, to the duo’s final goodbye, is damn near perfect.  It accurately captures that sincere, heartfelt spirit of being young and wanting to believe.  To believe that there are mysterious unknowable forces of absolute good in the world, that fear and nightmares really are just concepts that can’t actually hurt you, that you can effect real genuine change on the world through innocence and kindness.  It’s one of the best examples that I can find in recent memory of a film just getting that feeling of being a child, since most films instead either overly patronise or barely mask the fact that these are just adults attempting to remember how kids are and act.

Its emotional beats pay off excellently, even with the truncated runtime that the film has had to set them all off, the animation reaches extra special levels of gorgeous, seeing the guardians finally let loose is thrilling, the return of Sandman is one of those “oh, HELL YES!” moments that great fiction can pull from even the stoniest of human beings, and it’s all so sincerely joyous and heartfelt.  Again, the main narrative crux of the finale is whether a kid will believe hard enough that some kind of possibly unreal force of absolute good will rescue him from a nebulous force of absolute bad, and he and his friends are instrumental in saving the day purely because they believe hard enough.  And this is all played dead-straight for pure, heart-warming emotion, because this sequence, and consequently the film itself, absolutely would not work if it did so any other way.

And that is almost literally all of the time that I have this week.  There is so much more to talk about with regards to Rise of the Guardians – its sublime animation, the true extent of its pacing issues, its tone, how Chris Pine’s voice fits Jack Frost and unnecessarily distracts in equal measure, the marginalisation of Tooth Fairy, its themes of loneliness and how one can be shaped by that – but, much like with the film itself, I’ve tried to do too much in too little available time.  If I ever stupidly decide to retrofit this ridiculous series into a book format, then you’d better believe that I will be expanding this section majorly.  For now, though, Rise of the Guardians was a bomb, but it didn’t deserve to be, and it’s getting worrying that I can apply the first two parts of this sentence to more and more DreamWorks films as time goes on.


Rise of the Guardians was a major, notable financial dud for DreamWorks Animation, their first in nearly a decade.  It cost the company substantial money and likely put the studio on edge as to its future – not unfounded considering how 2013 would wrap up.  Rise also marked the end of the studio’s 8 year relationship with distributor Paramount Pictures as the success of Rango inspired the latter to make more home-grown animation, and DreamWorks’ desire for a deal with better terms for themselves.  In August of 2012, they signed a five-year deal with 20th Century Fox, owners of Blue Sky, and began this new relationship the following year.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the first film to come from this new partnership, The Croods, speculate on why this one was a success, and try to explore the further ramifications of this move.  Also, we’ll actually talk about the film this time.

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

Callum Petch has got gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Shaun The Sheep: The Movie

Quietly daring, raucously funny, and surprisingly heartwarming, Shaun The Sheep: The Movie is yet another home-run for Aardman Animations.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

shaun sheepOn the surface, Shaun The Sheep: The Movie doesn’t seem particularly groundbreaking.  After all, it looks like yet another kid-focussed animated movie about animals, whilst the film itself doesn’t openly re-invent any wheels, doesn’t stretch itself when it comes to gags, and doesn’t go overboard with giant action setpieces and such.  On the surface, Shaun The Sheep is just another animated kids’ flick, a genre which we are almost literally drowning in at the moment.  However, in its own modest way, Shaun The Sheep is actually really daring and, along with the rather similar in a lot of ways Paddington, a major pushback against the misguidedly dark, bloated excess that ‘family’ filmmaking has recently devolved into.

Specifically, Shaun The Sheep is a joyous, lean, no-nonsense movie.  Much like Paddington, it knows what it wants to be, executes what it wants to be with aplomb, and gets out.  Not a second is wasted, there are no sudden left-turns into unnecessary darkness, and it proudly wears its heart on its sleeve.  It’s the kind of light, cynicism-free, genuine family film which, much like with Paddington, they just don’t make anymore.  The kind where the gag stock in trade is physical humour, where the central dynamic is all about family, where the scale is small and intimate, where stakes are personal, and where character is king above all else.

In other words, it’s the antithesis of modern day ‘family’ filmmaking and something that only Aardman could have made.  There’s care and love in every frame, every shot, every scene, every character, action, sound cue, as well as a stunning level of confidence.  Other filmmakers might have tried to expand the scale, introduce too many ancillary characters that we’re supposed to care about, plough every single character full of backstory and unique personality, and heighten the stakes outside of the main cast to create a finale that’s supposed to be weightier than if it were just the main cast, but Aardman have trust in their work.  Trust that their film is fine as is and doesn’t need unnecessary bells and whistles.

Shaun has a laser-tight focus on its main characters – Shaun, The Farmer, Farmer’s dog Bitzer, and deranged animal controller A. Trumper who relentlessly pursues the sheep through The Big City – and any stakes in the film directly relate to those characters and their wellbeing, nothing further.  There are secondary characters – most specifically the flock that follows Shaun to The Big City, and a scruffy female stray dog who Shaun bumps into – but the film never makes the mistake of handing over the film to them unnecessarily for extended durations.  They’re there to compliment the main cast, not overpower them.  Meanwhile, the backstories, personalities, and relationships of the main cast are simple and upfront, told through actions and an excellent pair of montages at the start of the film – they make the cast feel more rounded and genuine in five minutes than The House of Magic managed in 80.

On that note, the film’s writer-directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton have cut out everything that they have deemed to be unnecessary to telling the story of Shaun The Sheep: The Movie and that includes the dialogue.  Yes, not once in Shaun The Sheep is a line of intelligible dialogue spoken.  There are animal sounds, grunts, and gibberish, but no actual dialogue.  Now, obviously, this is how it is in the TV series the film is based off of, but a less confident company would have thrown dialogue in there regardless and had the cast speak intelligibly – I know that Tom & Jerry: The Movie was over 20 years ago, but wounds like that never heal – and Aardman resisted that urge.  They had that confidence.

And the film is SO MUCH BETTER FOR IT.  It gives the film a unique voice of its own, a creative restriction that ends up influencing everything else in the film.  For example, the lack of dialogue means that gags have to be more universal, more slapstick, more built into the animation without coming off as lazy and repetitive.  It’s a tough line to walk, but Shaun makes it look ridiculously easy.  Gags come at a rapid-fire pace and aimed at all age levels with very few being expressly for a certain part of the audience, whilst recurring gags – like Trumper somehow falling (in two senses of the word) for one of the sheep’s elaborate disguises, or one of the Animal Containment inmates being unnervingly creepy – are sparingly returned to and build up to genuine payoffs instead of simply filling up time.  Boarding and layout are also excellent, building many gags around sight and blocking in a way that feels like the design of every last frame has been agonised over.

Speaking of, animation is typically fantastic.  Laika have really nailed expanding the possible technical scope and smoothness of stop-motion, as well as its integration of CGI, but there’s just something about the way that Aardman do business that will win me over each time.  There’s a weight, I feel; a physical, tangible weight to their characters.  Laika’s feel softer, lighter, less like human hands have been in touch with proceedings – sort of true, with their usage of CG and 3D printers – whilst Aardman’s feel heavier, denser, where their every move takes considerable effort.  As always, it works.  There’s nothing as complex as in The Pirates! but there is a warmth and lived-in feel, helped by the fact that, despite this effectively being a silent movie, character animations rarely go for wild and exaggerated to get across feelings.

I haven’t yet touched on Ilan Eshkeri’s score, which is a crime because it’s bloody brilliant and one of the key ways in which the film works.  Since there’s no typical dialogue, the score backs and accentuates the action, making it even clearer as to exactly how characters are thinking, feeling, etc.  It does a fantastic job at that whilst still conveying its own unique, slightly country, but always bouncy personality – and you all know how much I love me a score with some personality – not to mention the little leitmotifs that announce the arrival of a character; Trumper, for example, is always introduced with a crunchy, noodle-y and always self-consciously silly hard rock riff.  It, like the rest of the film, is charming and unlike anything else on the market at the moment.

And that’s what makes Shaun The Sheep: The Movie so special despite it honestly not being much more than a sweet funny comedy aimed at families.  Actually, scratch the “despite” part of that last sentence.  That’s exactly why it is so special!  It’s low-key, character-focussed, intimate, and inclusive in a way that most family movies nowadays just aren’t.  Family moviemaking nowadays is very much in a rut.  The animated films – and I’m singling out the bad ones, here, tropes and such aren’t bad as long as they’re done well – are mostly loud and big and spectacle lacking in heart, whilst the live-action ones have mostly migrated to 12a serialised action fests, most of which shut out the youngest by being too dark and intense for them.

But Aardman remember.  Aardman remember that family entertainment should be enjoyable for all members and ages of the family.  They remember the alternative to loud heartless spectacle, they remember that a light, character-driven animated film isn’t somehow lesser, and they embrace that fact.  Shaun The Sheep: The Movie is nothing particularly groundbreaking, but it is unlike anything else currently in the cinema and the only people who won’t laugh, have fun, or be moved are either relentless killjoys or legally declared dead.  Do not miss this one!

Callum Petch is too hot, call the police and the fireman!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

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)!

The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls is good.  It is very good.  It’s just not great.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

boxtrolls… … …dammit.

The Story So Far: I have been spending this year attempting to watch every single non-horror film released in 2014 that comes my way (this, for frame of reference, is my 52nd review of the year for the 78th film I have seen during it), but I have been going out of my way to see every animated film that is released in the year as part of my ongoing life quest to absorb all of the animation ever.  For, as previously mentioned, I adore animation.  It holds a special place in my heart and the medium is one awash with amazing possibilities that, when realised, are nearly unmatched for me in the world of film.  Unfortunately, 2014 has not been a particularly good year for the medium so far.  Sure, we’ve had The Lego Movie and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, I am not disputing and downplaying the extent to which I enjoyed those films, but those were both released in February and, well, nothing else has really come close to great since then.  How To Train Your Dragon 2 was a major disappointment for me (and, yes, I know that I am in the minority with regards to that series), Rio 2 was merely divertingly decent viewing, and everything else has basically sucked miserably.

But all hope was not lost for me!  For the last four months were going to bring forth two saviours who were going to make the crap worthwhile (not three, because Disney’s Big Hero 6 doesn’t hit UK shores until January for literally no good REASON).  The end of October was going to bring The Book Of Life, the debut feature of El Tigre: The Adventures Of Manny Rivera’s Jorge R. Gutierrez and which looks full of charm and visual splendour that nobody else in the animated-feature industry seems willing to try.  But, before that, there would be The Boxtrolls.  Now, I think it would be fair to say that my expectations for The Boxtrolls prior to entry were high: Laika, the company behind the film, are previous of Coraline and ParaNorman, the latter being one of my very favouritist films of 2012 and my second-favourite animated film of all-time.  I actually entered 2014 with The Boxtrolls being my single most anticipated film of the whole year.  Some might say that I had crippled the film before I’d even seen a single frame, putting too much pressure and expectation on a film that it could not possibly live up to.

Maybe those people are true, maybe I built myself up for disappointment.  That, however, is a theory.  You want facts, so here are the facts: The Boxtrolls is good.  The Boxtrolls is very good.  I had a lot of fun with it, I laughed, I gasped up, my heart got a minor stirring from my emotions.  The Boxtrolls is not great.  The reason why The Boxtrolls is not great is down to its messy, unfocussed and sub-par screenplay.  The Boxtrolls, ultimately, is a disappointment, only for legitimate reasons instead of unreasonably high expectations.  And now you know why I started off this review with “… … …dammit.”

Our story concerns the town of Cheesebridge, a Victorian-style place where class structures are everything and everyone has an obsession for cheese that overrides all common senses for some reason.  Residing below the streets of Cheesebridge are a race of creatures known as Boxtrolls (primarily voiced by Dee Bradley Baker and Steve Blum), friendly little scavenger and worker creatures who everyone mistakes for fierce monsters due to the fact that they don’t look normal (yes, we are working towards the same moral that ParaNorman had but in a far clumsier way, more on that shortly).  Not helping matters is the fact that one night, they end up taking a human boy, who they dub Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), from the surface and raise him as one of their own.  This leads to the slimy and opportunistic Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) presenting his Boxtroll exterminator service to the townsfolk with the promise of an entry into the town’s high society if he successfully completes his planned genocide.  A decade or so later, most of the Boxtrolls have been captured and Eggs decides to try and rescue them.  Tagging along is a human girl, named Winnie (Elle Fanning), with a perverse fascination for the violent Boxtroll stories that Snatcher has been perpetuating (or maybe it’s just Boxtrolls in general, it’s rather unclear).

Right, the good first.  As is par for the course, by this point, the animation is fantastic.  It’s much less busy than Coraline and ParaNorman, even when madcap chase scenes abound, but it’s no less detailed and no less convincing.  The folks over at Laika have done an outstanding job with the look and feel of Cheesebridge, excellently evoking the mood of a Victorian town with its cobbled roads, tight streets and towering buildings.  There’s a good sense of scale.  Character movements are even more fluid than in ParaNorman and facial expressions have never been more perfectly expressive.  Snatcher, in particular, can go from humorously ineffectual-looking to menacing through a change in position, facial expression and camera placement, especially when the film reveals the identity he’s been using to ingratiate himself into high society.  It’s all really charming, too, that natural stop-motion love seeping through every frame.  Lighting is fantastic, shadows are very convincing, with an early scene at night reminding easily reminding all that Laika are the kings at atmosphere in the animated realm.

Occasionally, though, the film does revert to CG to animate more complex movements and the like.  I wouldn’t bring this up if it was near-seamless, like in ParaNorman, but it really isn’t.  The quality is very low, excess motion blur poorly hides said low-quality, it gels badly with the non-CG’d stuff and a lot of it feels extraneous, animations that would have been possible to perform in stop-motion but were probably assigned CG duty due to encroaching deadlines and the like.  It’s not enough to bring the film down, after all I will be remembering the exceptional character animations and facial work long after this movie has left the cinemas, but it is enough to be noticeable and warrant a mild calling out.  I have no problem with CG being used to enhance your stop-motion, Laika, ParaNorman did it fantastically, but it needs to be of a higher standard than this.

Character designs, meanwhile, are very strong.  The film has to walk a thin line between “ugly cute” and “just plain ugly”, in order to both convey the grimy Victorian time period design and be able to play the titular characters as alternately cute and menacing depending on whose point of view we’re looking at, but it manages to do so with aplomb.  The Boxtrolls themselves all have minor individual yet distinctive designs that make it easy to tell apart who is who, and they are honestly really rather adorable, especially when they start moving.  As previously mentioned, Snatcher has a design that easily lends itself to whatever tone the material he is involved in takes.  Eggs and Winnie also have distinctive designs, even if Eggs is sometimes a bit too dirty to be 100% pleasant to look at and Winnie’s design never seems to quite escape the pompous scowl that she mostly holds.  I must, however, applaud the character designers’ choice to have Winnie have a noticeably fuller body type than is usually displayed in kids’ films.  You might think this means little and is rather inconsequential, but I guarantee that there will be some young girl out there who sees something like that, something that is not made fun of once I must add, and will find it a huge self-esteem boost.  Trust me, it’ll mean more than you think to somebody.

Speaking of kids, now seems as good a time as any to put to bed a couple of things that other critics have been saying about the film.  No, the character designs are not too ugly for kids to love.  I know this for a fact because my screening was rammed full of families and the kids there loved the little Boxtrolls.  Many of them even audibly and visually got very excited at the standee for the film that was situated near me whilst I did some reviewing between films; one even got their parent to take a picture of them with it.  The other thing is that some critics have claimed that the film, and the finale especially, will be too scary for children.  Not only is it demonstrably false (again, I was in a screening filled with kids and they all loved it and weren’t bothered by its darker moments in the slightest), it both shows a severe underestimation on the part of critics with regards to their thoughts on children and gives off the suspicion that none of them have seen Laika’s prior work.  Compared to Coraline, which basically was just a straight horror film for kids, The Boxtrolls is more along the lines of James & The Giant Peach.  In fact, that was even the distinct feeling I had when I got out of the film, a strong recollection of the movie of James & The Giant Peach.

So, if you really do have to judge an animated movie based solely on the insulting criteria of whether kids will love it: rest easy.  I was in a screening full of them and they were all audibly having a tremendous time, loving every character and not being traumatised in the slightest.  Normally I wouldn’t take the time out to mention this, but I thought I’d nip some misconceptions in the bud before they become commonplace.

Anyways, back to what the film does right: The Boxtrolls is a lot of fun.  The action scenes are exciting, the film is well-paced if awkwardly plotted and structured (we’ll get to that), and its jokes are fast, frequent and very funny.  Much like with ParaNorman, the jokes cover the whole spectrum, but they are a bit broader, like everyone involved is cutting loose due to not being constrained by a horror aesthetic this time.  Slapstick is brilliantly staged and deployed (finally!), a piece of grotesque body horror actually ends up as one of the film’s funnier gags, there’s a segment where Eggs is attempting to fit into a high society banquet and, whilst they are rather obvious and very telegraphed, the jokes there are some of the film’s best, Snatcher’s secret side-identity is a very easy gag but I still laughed because Ben Kingsley takes it all the way (in fact, I’m just going to go ahead and single out Ben Kingsley from the very good voice cast now because it saves me a paragraph in a minute), and then there are Mr. Pickles and Mr. Trout.  Mr. Pickles and Mr. Trout are two of Snatcher’s henchmen, voiced by Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost respectively, and they are both having existential quandaries about their place in the universe and the good vs. evil narrative they’re partaking in.  As you can probably guess, their material is some of the funniest in the film, in particular because Ayoade and Frost rattle it all off near-flawlessly.

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And yet, despite those last few paragraphs of points in its favour, and the fact that it easily slots into the highest echelons of the year’s animated films, I was still disappointed with The Boxtrolls.  Why?  No, it’s not because I am “a hard-to-please-killjoy”.  It all comes back to the screenplay.  Yes, it’s very funny and well-paced.  It is also a huge mess: trying to do too much in too little time, giving most everyone the short ends of various sticks, never quite grasping who most of the characters actually are, and clumsily re-treading ground that ParaNorman covered two years ago.  With the characters, the villains are all really well drawn and defined and easy to get a handle on, but the leads are mostly lightweight and not as detailed.  Winnie, in particular, never seems to be a completely defined character and I never did quite figure out whether her interest in the Boxtrolls was because of them, the gruesome stories that Cheesebridge perpetuates about them, or whether it’s just her attempting to get attention from her neglectful parents.  Incidentally, Cheesbridge’s extreme obsession with cheese never really amounts to anything, as if it’s just supposed to stand in for their entire character.  Also, notice how the titular Boxtrolls seem to get the short shrift, barely being relevant outside of their being a plot device?  Yeah, that’s the problem here.

We get to know Fish because he’s Eggs’ adopted father, and Shoe gets a tiny bit of screen-time, but that’s about it.  They may all look distinct and individual, but most of the Boxtrolls are interchangeable when it comes to personalities.  We learn that they scavenge and are peaceful and that they sleep by stacking themselves one on top of another in the most adorable thing you will see all weekend, but I never felt like I learnt anything about them.  They’re important because they’re cute, they’re important to Eggs and nobody wants to see a genocide, and that’s about the extent of it.  You know how Despicable Me 2 had us spend a lot of time with the Minions to make the eventual happenings that occur to them carry genuine weight beyond just “nobody wants to see the cute things hurt”?  Yeah, the same isn’t true of the Boxtrolls.  They mostly just sit in the background, as, in fact, do most of the heroes, whilst the villains take centre-stage unless it is absolutely necessary for them to appear.  That’s a damn shame, both because they are really cute and personality-filled, and also because the film’s message of tolerance and inclusivity rings false when, well, they’re mostly kept on the sidelines for the villains.

As for that message of tolerance, inclusivity and acceptance regardless of race, gender, age, physical deformities, sexuality, etc.?  It sounds rather similar to the one that ParaNorman sported, doesn’t it?  That’s the other problem.  A lot of The Boxtrolls’ best moments, its best scenes and emotional beats, were done before in ParaNorman and done much, much better.  ParaNorman had a whole cast of fantastically well-drawn characters that were full of depth, whilst The Boxtrolls kinda doesn’t and that really ends up hurting it.  There’s no real emotional centre, nothing connects like it should, the big moments don’t resonate.  Winnie’s arc with her parents neglecting or just straight up ignoring her was done way better in ParaNorman, working that neglect into actual character reasons rather than just irritating absurdity.  That film’s message of tolerance and acceptance was woven right into its DNA and addressed, again, through actual character work instead of just plot mechanics.  But when The Boxtrolls goes for its own path, it falls down even harder.  The middle of the film reveals how Eggs got into the hands of Fish and Shoe and it’s based around an action that really ratchets up the menace for Snatcher at just the time he needs it… but then there’s a twist at the three-quarters mark that undoes that for no real reason than to just give Eggs everything at the ending.  There is no plot reason for this change in course.  It just feels like the film wimping out, something that Coraline and ParaNorman never even dreamt of doing.

Then, much like this part of the review, there’s the awkward structure.  As you may have noticed, we spend a large amount of time in the presence of the film’s villains and, whilst they are very entertaining, it ends up reducing the already underwritten heroes even more and highlighting that problem in bright colours that could be seen from the moon.  They really need reduced screen time, time that we should instead be spending with Eggs as he goes through his identity crisis, or even just the Boxtrolls themselves so that we can actually fear for their plight.  Meanwhile, the film’s decision to start right as the Boxtrolls take in Eggs gives us no real status-quo.  There’s no real indication as to how things were before the bad times started, we get no real idea as to how the Boxtrolls act in their downtime (read: not being chased and captured) and, again, this all feeds into the hollow emotional centre.  Besides their cuteness, I know nothing about them and I have no clue what things were like for them before they started having to truly fear for their lives.  The film also starts off really awkwardly, taking too long to set things up properly and not finding its footing for at least 15 minutes, and I could practically see the gears creak (pun kind of intended) when it came to moving things into place for the finale.  This screenplay, as you may have gathered, is a mess and badly needed substantial rewrites before the film entered production; shame it never got them.

The Boxtrolls is a highly entertaining ride, I will admit.  I had a lot of fun and, as is the usual case for Laika productions, the animation is gorgeous and the voice work is splendid.  But it lacks the giant beating heart that Coraline and ParaNorman had.  Its screenplay is too messy, short-changing too many characters and being too muddled in its overall aims.  When it cribs from ParaNorman, which is does a lot, it only serves to show how bereft of genuine depth this film has and how badly the screenplay needed major rewrites.  Whereas those prior films really connected on a strong emotional level, in ways that stick with me to this day (ParaNorman, especially), The Boxtrolls instead just entertains and will likely fade from my memory soon enough.  A lot of effort has clearly gone in here, it’s one of the year’s better animated features and it’s still very good.  Unfortunately, seeing as we’re talking about Laika here, “very good” isn’t good enough for me.  You could probably give them credit for already reaching the “good enough isn’t good enough” point after only two prior films, but it only stands to show the fact that, despite the large amounts of fun I had with it, The Boxtrolls ultimately disappointed me.  Dammit.

OK, The Book Of Life.  It’s all on you now.  Don’t mess up.

Callum Petch should have just named you Laika.  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)!