Tag Archives: Wallace & Gromit

Flushed Away

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


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

Budget: $149 million

Gross: $178,120,010

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%

I hated Flushed Away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

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


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

Budget: $30 million

Gross: $192,610,372

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Madagascar

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.


madagascar10] Madagascar (27th May 2005)

Budget: $75 million

Gross: $532,680,671

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 55%

2004 was a pivotal year in Western feature-length animation.  It’s basically the point where numerous little ideas and theories that people had with regards to successful films of the medium were validated near-totally, and where the stage was set for pretty much the rest of the decade.  Maybe even the century if you believe the medium still hasn’t moved past them yet (although it has, mostly).  Yet I gave pretty much no column space to this crucial year in the past two weeks.  The reasons are two-fold: the first is that Shrek 2 and Shark Tale had way too much to break down with regards to their constructions and failings to find spare time to focus on the medium’s history, the second is that 2005, the first year after the new order takes effect, is a great place to start looking at 2004.

In other words; strap in, folks, it’s time for a brief history lesson!

So, 2004 was the year in which traditional feature animation breathed its last gasp before finally expiring.  It was the year in which Disney released what was planned to be their final traditionally-animated film, the abysmal Home On The Range, and it bombed spectacularly (a worldwide total of $103 million against a budget of $110 million).  The failure of their other animated features during the decade (with the exception of Lilo & Stitch) had convinced them that that aspect of the medium was done; and when Disney says that something is beyond hope, you’d better believe that everyone else is going to sit up, listen, and follow their lead.  The year’s only other traditionally-animated feature made in the West was the rather successful The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, and you can pretty much guarantee that everyone chalked that up to the built-in fan base of the TV show more than anything else.  In 2005, there was one traditionally-animated feature film released in cinemas, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie.  That part of the medium was officially abandoned.

Instead, as you may have gathered, 2004 was the year of DreamWorks Animation.  Pixar may have released The Incredibles to glowing financial and critical success, but DreamWorks released Shrek 2, which was also critically acclaimed and became the highest grossing film of the year.  And though Shark Tale would slot very comfortably behind The Incredibles, and have faded from most people’s memories since its release, it still made a lot of money.  It made a heck of a lot of money, and it did it by following the Shrek formula (or, more accurately, the Shrek formula but stripped of the heart and sincerity that made Shrek resonate with viewers).  This was DreamWorks’ third big hit during the decade, two in the same year too, and it proved that you could apply the (mistaken) Shrek formula to non-Shrek films and make some serious money out of it.  Hence why 2007 would bring us Surf’s Up and 2006 inflicted Barnyard upon the world.

Meanwhile, 2005 was the year in which those who had seen the success of the first Shrek and hadn’t sat on their hands waiting to see if the formula for success was going to be universal or just a one-off, began to flood the market with their attempts at cashing in on that prospective money pile.  Although it wouldn’t hit the US until a year later, and with a localised redub that I hear made things even worse, the UK got themselves a gritty reboot of lovable cult French animated series The Magic Roundabout, with villains and Matrix parodies and terrible covers of Kinks songs and goddamn Robbie Williams (yes, the singer) as Dougal, that they didn’t ask for.  Hoodwinked! tried to combine Shrek style humour with a mystery genre and a Pulp Fiction approach to timeline hopping, and brought in modest returns.  And then, although this was just as much Disney trying to prove that they didn’t need Pixar should their contract renegotiations go south as it was them desperately trying to stay relevant, there was Chicken Little.  I will not waste any more words referring to Chicken Little.

2006 would be the year in which these effects would become pretty much permanent, and naturally we’ll come to that in two weeks, so that makes 2005 the year of transition, as everyone adapted to the new landscape that DreamWorks Animation had genuinely wrought.  Well, what of DreamWorks?  How did they take 2005, their first full year as a separate and publically traded entity?  Rather a lot like 2004, to be frank.  2004 began the release schedule plan of two films from the company a year, released at opposite ends of the year, most likely for maximum canvassing of prospective dollars and to avoid over-exposure of the brand, and 2005 continued that in earnest with Madagascar and Aardman’s first film since Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (we’ll get to that next week).  Whilst neither ended up having Shrek 2’s level of success, both were number 1 films, both broke the top 50 films of the year worldwide (Madagascar at #6, Wallace & Gromit at #21), and both ended up as part of very successful franchises that are still going strong today.  They even mirrored 2004 critically, too, with one film falling flat and the other film receiving a tonne of acclaim.

Today, we’re focussing on the one that fell flat.

Although it scored much higher than Shark Tale, Madagascar didn’t really connect with critics; the damning phrase “fun for kids… not much appeal for parents” being applied frequently.  Many found issue with the gags, which were either too low-brow or too pop culture-oriented.  Several found the premise ludicrous, one outlet saying that it is “pathetically ignorant” and spent an entire paragraph tearing it to shreds for not sticking to some semblance of reality.  A repeated thought expressed involved the belief that the quality of the animation didn’t make up for the lack of story or emotional centre.  Mostly, though, critics just found it too average to recommend or dismiss.  The general consensus primarily being that everyone involved could do better, the looming spectre of the superior Shrek hanging over proceedings.

The general public, predictably, didn’t give a toss.  It may not have debuted at number 1, opening the week after Star Wars Episode III would do that to you, but Madagascar rode its Memorial Day Weekend release date to a very respectable third place, just below The Longest Yard (the public still loved Adam Sandler and Chris Rock in 2005, let’s not forget), before leap-frogging the pair of them to the number 1 spot next week.  That would be the only time that it would occupy the top spot (in comparison to Shark Tale’s three-week run at the top), due to Summer 2005 being pretty damn crowded, but it still hung around the Top 10 for 8 weeks and closed as the 9th Highest Grossing Film Domestic of 2005.  Overseas, it was somehow even more successful, accounting for over 60% of the total worldwide gross.

Audiences, then, couldn’t get enough of Madagascar.  So much so that a major franchise ended up spinning off of it, one that currently encompasses two sequels with a third on the way, two holiday-themed TV specials, a spin-off television series for the penguins and a film version of that spin-off hitting theatres before this year is out.  The franchise has currently grossed $1.8 billion, is only behind Shrek, Ice Age and Toy Story in terms of highest grossing animated franchises of all-time, and is DreamWorks Animation’s other big consistent cash-cow with no signs of slowing down or letting up now (the Penguins movie may even reverse the poor year the company’s been having financially).

Unlike with Shark Tale, I can see why Madagascar caught on to the extent that it did, and not just because Pixar didn’t release a film that year.  It’s a damn good film, there’s a lot to like.  It’s not a great film, mind, and I’ll get to why it’s not in a short while, but it’s the kind of good film where one may not notice that it’s not great if they’re not 100% engaged with the film or, you know, they just don’t care.  That’s why Madagascar connected so well with kids (the unabashed target market of this one) and their half-paying attention parents, because there really isn’t much wrong with it for those who just want a good time.  I do firmly believe that kids are way smarter than most movie critics give them credit for, but I will concede that, having been one myself once, sometimes they’ll just want something fun that they don’t have to think about.

That’s what Madagascar is in its best moments, a very fun joke machine.  At the time of its release, a lot of us more animation focussed film critics were tripping over Genndy Tartakovsky’s Hotel Transylvania for bringing classic Tex Avery-style fast-paced squash-and-stretch animation into the 3D realm, but Madagascar was at least trying to ape that style a good 7 years earlier.  Unlike Shark Tale’s occasional attempts at using fast-paced animation for sudden silly visual gags (the “lunch is coming up, so I’m only going to do the bare minimum amount of frames before knocking off” version), Madagascar sticks to the manic, fast-paced animation style throughout.  Characters movie primarily in a stiff pose-to-pose manner, only becoming more fluid when the pace of the movie slows down somewhat, allowing for sudden bouts of physical violence and what have you to carry an impact without feeling jarring and out-of-place.

The film’s colour scheme is bright and breezy, often rather primary, to reflect that attempt at old-school animation.  Facial animations are wildly exaggerated and very expressive, again reflecting the “whacked out” (the animators’ words, not mine) mood of the dialogue and the film.  Character designs, meanwhile, were inspired by a cross between the real animals and caricatures of said animals, with the results turning out way better than that sounds like it would on paper.  They’re all distinct from one another and recognisable as each species, but they never fall into any uncanny valleys or look anything less than huggable (possibly because nobody tried to make them look like the people voicing them, Shark Tale).  And then there’s the little touch of having them mostly move like humans (although this mainly applies to Alex and Gloria due to the nature of their anatomies).  Instead of feeling lazy, like the animators were too bored to learn how to animate quadrupeds, it adds to their characters, being city folk lost on a wild desert island they clearly won’t survive on.

In case you hadn’t gathered, the animation works.  It’s not stand-out, attention-commanding, tear-inducing-at-the-beauty amazing, but it works for the film, it works for the style that the film goes for which, arguably, is what a film’s animation should primarily attempt to do.  In this case, it works for the rapid-fire joke machine style of Madagascar.  This is a film that comes hard and fast with gags that, for the most part, land to varying degrees of success.  The best ones are the physical gags, which play off the animation very well.  For example, look at the frequently-referenced-nowadays gag where an old lady beats up Alex.

Now, yes, the joke is that an old (possibly Russian) lady is beating up and threatening a lion, which is easy humour, but it’s the animation that sells it (especially since Ben Stiller’s voice work here is… er… we’ll get to that).  It’s not just that she is beating up Alex, it’s that she is manhandling him to an absurd degree.  The squash-and-stretch nature of the animation enhances the joke because it conveys the degree to which she is dominating the fight, the pose-to-pose nature demonstrating the ridiculousness of the situation with easy to convey stances, and the speed of the animation – all frames that would have made it overly smooth clearly got deleted – allows the joke to last precisely as long as it needs to.  Yes, I know that explaining the joke is really boring, but picking apart this particular moment allows me to easily explain why the physical humour works so well, because the animation and pacing are calculated to perfection.

Which brings me to the penguins.  I remember these four being my favourite part of the film when I was a kid, and they’re my favourite part of the film now a near-decade later.  Why?  A few simple reasons.  1) Their characters are strong.  All four of them have individual designs without them ever feeling disjointed (read: you can tell them apart and they all remain looking like penguins), whilst their personalities are similarly distinct if a bit one-dimensional – although that’s not an issue in this case.  2) The animation.  The pose-to-pose squash-and-stretch animation really does wonders for this lot; apply what I said with regards to the old lady in the last paragraph here and multiply that phrase tenfold.  3) The voice work.  Oh, man!  Tom McGrath, Chris Miller (not that one), Christopher Knights and an uncredited Jeffrey Katzenberg are near-perfect in their roles, their various line deliveries make pretty much anything gold.  Co-director Tom McGrath, especially, runs circles around the rest of the voice cast as Skipper, to such an extent that his temp tracks became the official voice for the character (we will likely address this a bit more later in the series).  If I could find a compilation of their scenes in this film, I’d embed it for you, but I can’t so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that their every scene is friggin’ hilarious.  Unless you’ve seen the film, in which case you’re probably just nodding your head in agreement right now.

I’m starting to sound really positive on Madagascar, so let’s temper this enthusiasm with the reasons why I noted that the film is only good and not great.  The first is that the voice acting is… well, it’s poor.  Not for the penguins or Mason the chimp (definitely not Mason, his sophisticated British accent is never not a delight), but the main cast are pretty terrible.  Ben Stiller is frequently too flat – I remind you of the old lady segment and how his voice makes it seem like Alex is instead being lightly annoyed by a fly – to be convincing, Chris Rock’s voice is too distinct to slip away into Marty the Zebra and, unlike Eddie Murphy in Shrek, he doesn’t invest in the character enough to make up for that fact, David Schwimmer seems more poorly directed than just plain bad (he is trying, if nothing else), whilst Jada Pinkett Smith gets nothing to do as Gloria and uses that as an excuse to not even bother trying.  It means that, whilst the film is still very funny, a lot of the verbal jokes don’t hit as hard as they should.

Speaking of those jokes, they’re at their best when they focus on physical humour and come from character work, however minor.  Sometimes, though, we are dropped into various pop culture references and their every appearance may as well have been accompanied by an orchestra of crickets.  They primarily come from music cues, too, that laziest of laugh-inducers unless done really well.  Marty’s walk through New York is backed by “Stayin’ Alive” and shot like that one Saturday Night Fever bit, most likely because everyone wasn’t confident in their one gag (Marty doing a double-take at the zebra-style shirt a female pedestrian is wearing) being sufficiently appreciated.  Then there’s the ending of the scene where the Statue of Liberty SOS torch (very much in character for the cast, adding to the ridiculousness of the joke) ends up being revealed as a reeeeally strained set-up for a G-rated reference to Planet Of The Apes that everybody had done before.

See, in those worst moments, they end up undercutting the perfectly fine joke that they’d been a feature of.  In their better moments, they’re unnecessary distractions that lessen but don’t totally kill the impact of the joke itself.  For an example of the poorer side, I point you towards King Julian’s nickname for the gang, “The New York Giants”, a pun that is a giant groan-inducer the first time it is mentioned and which only gets more groan-worthy the more times it ends up getting trotted out (although I appreciate the filmmakers trying to make it a character beat).  An example of the latter involves the reunion of Marty and Alex on the beach – the clip is embedded below – where a perfectly funny joke that would work with almost literally any other music cue has its true power kneecapped because they just had to cue up the Chariots Of Fire theme.  It’s lazy and pointless, almost purposefully kneecapping great jokes thanks to blaringly loud pop culture references the film stops to point out.

Oh, and whilst I’m pointing out flaws on the comedy side, I really don’t like King Julian and the rest of the lemurs.  Sacha Baron Cohen’s voice is distractingly flat and irritating, their jokes aren’t funny and they serve pretty much no purpose to the plot.  Seriously, they barely factor into the thing, pretty much only turning up because it would be weird to have a wild jungle without some kind of wildlife.  The Fossa threat could have been featured without needing the lemurs, as the lemurs smack really hard of Token Kid-Focussed Comic Relief; hence the legendary and really-painful to sit through “I Like To Move It” sequence, even if that was actually just an improvisation by Sacha Baron Cohen – you know, in case you were looking for reasons to vehemently dislike him.

But the true reason why Madagascar is only “good, not great” is because the film is such a joke machine that its attempts at poignancy and drama and heart don’t resonate.  Every single time that the film tries to go for something genuinely heartfelt, it undercuts the scene with a joke or a music cue.  The scene where Alex first goes feral and bites Marty should be genuinely emotional, but it’s played for awkward laughs.  The requisite sad times montage is backed by Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” which is just too on-the-nose to register as effective soundtrack dissonance, and said montage also further undercuts its attempts at sadness with some of the film’s funniest jokes.

Of course, more problematic is the fact that the cast are too one-dimensional for the attempts at drama to work.  Due to the film being a joke machine, this means that the cast take a lot of snipes and swipes at each other for the sake of laughs and very little time is spent showing them as genuine friends whose bonds are strong and worth investing in.  The start of the film attempts to do that, but then Marty gets out into New York and we descend into pure jokes, barring one scene, which is disappointing.  The jokes are often funny, don’t get me wrong, but it means that the film ends up as more disposable than it could have been and makes its few legitimate attempts at non-undercut drama ring hollow.

All this being said, I see why people really liked Madagascar, how this franchise ended up getting kick-started, and why the penguins are so popular that they’re getting a movie spin-off of their TV spin-off.  It’s a good film, the kind of good film where I would more than happily take a chance on a sequel due to the potential clearly on display in the first film; something I imagine a lot of parents used as a rationale behind purchasing tickets when the sequel came about (you know, along with “it will shut the kids up for 90 minutes”).  It doesn’t hit the heights of some of DreamWorks’ prior accomplishments, but it’s also a damn sight better than anything they released during the 12 months of 2004.  It’s fun, it’s breezy, it’s disposable, it’s good but not great and sometimes that’s all the public needs.  Plus, you know, easy-to-latch-onto catchphrases for the kids.  That always helps (drive everyone else insane so please stop doing them, filmmakers).


Madagascar continued DreamWorks’ box office streak into its second year, and although critical opinion of the company was still at an all-time low, they could at least comfort themselves from the mean words of the critics by bathing in the pool of cash, Scrooge McDuck-style, that the film ended up bringing in.  Meanwhile, Aardman Animations were putting the finishing touches to their theatrical follow-up to Chicken Run, the big-screen debut of the beloved duo that made them household names in the UK, and an animated film that many would argue is one of the finest of the decade.  Next week, we turn our attentions to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit.

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

Callum Petch puts on lipstick, the price is: what?!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Chicken Run

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

chicken-run-2000-3-g-640x509

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)!