This month sees the release of Early Man, the seventh feature-length offering from Bristol’s own Aardman Animations. As you’d have every right to expect from the studio, Early Man is a heart-warming and family-friendly slice of old-fashioned joy, and a winning testament to the powers of teamwork. For decades, Aardman have been the UK’s pre-eminent exporter of animated goods, and with good reason: their signature stop motion productions across a wide range of media have a tremendously warm, loved, and unmistakably Aardman quality that delights folk of all ages.
Early Man is a return to the director’s chair – after a ten-year absence – for the inimitable Nick Park, the man who joined Aardman 10 years into its life and became their foremost creative mind not long after (in no small part thanks to the work of genius that is Wallace & Gromit). Under Park’s creative lead, and the stewardship of company founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton, Aardman Animations have used their trademark style and sense of humour to charm their way to four Academy Awards and two BAFTAs, among countless other awards and nominations.
With Park’s return, there’s no better time to cast an eye over the fingerprint-marked clay world of Aardman, and how their vision and imagination has lead to their status as such a dominant force in the world of animation.
Morph (1977, 1980)
Any British person above a certain age will recognise Morph, the brown plasticine shapeshifter who started it all for Aardman. Originally appearing as a special guest on Take Hart, alongside UK children’s broadcasting legend Tony Hart, Morph’s popularity lead to him being granted his own series in 1980 – The Amazing Adventures of Morph – of which the upstart animation studio Aardman was put in sole charge of producing. Until now, Aardman had only made the unimaginatively-titled Animated Conversations. Something of a spiritual precursor to the yet-to-be-conceived Creature Comforts, these poorly-received shorts involved the same technique of taking real-life interviews and applying stop-motion animation retrospectively. Their crude and experimental nature meant that they never really grabbed the attention of audiences. The Amazing Adventures of Morph, however, gave Aardman a route into family-friendly fare, with Morph’s shapeshifting abilities giving the studio just a glimpse of the endless possibilities given by stop motion. Thanks to Sky and YouTube, Morph is still going strong today.
The iconic music video for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’ won nine MTV Music awards – the most ever by a single music video – and it’s easy to see why. Taking a marathon 16 hours to shoot (with Gabriel himself lying face-up under a glass table for the duration), Sledgehammer is a madcap masterpiece that pushed the boundaries of what a music video could be. Whilst directed by revered music video director Stephen R. Johnson, Sledgehammer’s stop-motion animation was provided by one of Aardman’s latest recruits, a young NFTS graduate called Nick Park who had joined the company a year prior.
Creature Comforts (1989)
The first Aardman production to be nominated for an Oscar, in 1991, Nick Park’s humble and charming Creature Comforts actually went on to win, beating another little Nick Park film by the name of A Grand Day Out (on which more below). Something about this series of interviews with anthropomorphised zoo animals complaining about their living conditions really resonated with the British public, with its popularity leading to the creation of a TV series, and thereafter an advertising campaign for the electricity board. The warm, homespun Creature Comforts was the short that first introduced the famous Aardman furrowed brow and close-set eyes, which would go on to distinguish the faces of their characters right up to the present day.
Wallace & Gromit: A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993), A Close Shave (1995)
Wallace & Gromit, the stories about a northern inventor with a proclivity for cheese and crackers and his silent but intelligent dog, is what took Aardman from a little-heard-of cottage industry in Bristol to a household name. With five Oscar nominations and three wins between them, these are very much the films that put Aardman on the map. Being premiered with a Christmastime slot on Channel 4 in 1990, 1993 and 1995, Wallace & Gromit have become synonymous with the festive period, with their family-friendly nature, genius physical comedy, and warming sense of cosy-ness making them absolute staples of holiday viewing. Looking back, A Grand Day Out is far cruder in comparison to the latter two – there are a few slightly stilted silences and jokes that don’t quite land, and as such it lacks the seamlessness that makes the later entries such classics.
The Wrong Trousers is, to this writer’s mind, Aardman’s absolute creative peak, thank to its combination of whip-smart writing and inspired visual comedy, not to mention a surprising amount of emotion and catchy-as-all-hell title music. Winning over 30 international awards (including that coveted Best Animated Short Oscar), The Wrong Trousers is one of the most successful animated films of all time.
The third entry in this series, A Close Shave is by far the darkest, though it introduced audiences to Shaun the Sheep, the diminutive hero who would later become the signature character of Aardman’s child-friendly 2010s output.
Chicken Run (2000)
In 1999, Aardman co-signed a $250 million agreement with Dreamworks Animations to co-produce and distribute five films together. Aardman’s first feature, and the first under this new agreement, was the iconic Chicken Run, which was made for $45 million – by far the largest budget handled by Aardman, which was previously the $2 million spent on A Close Shave.
Thanks to the unique charms and confident storytelling of Chicken Run, it went on to make five times its budget ($225 million) worldwide. Sadly released a year before the introduction of the Best Animated Feature Oscar (the first was won by Shrek the following year), Chicken Run missed out on mainstream awards attention, but its perfectly-cast voice talent and its rollicking, Great Escape-inspired script drew plaudits from both sides of the pond.
Chicken Run was the first real taste the US market at large had had of Aardman’s idiosyncratic animation style and sense of humour – while certain pieces of UK-centric humour will have flown under the radar in that market, the stateside success of Chicken Run would allow Aardman to expand their horizons, and to widen their scope to explore their unique stories on a grander scale – of course with more of Dreamworks’ cash, though this would not be without its complications.
Flushed Away (2006)
2005 saw the debut (and to date, only) feature outing of Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which saw a first Animated Feature Oscar for Aardman along with the now fully-expected critical adoration and strong takings at the box office ($192 million total worldwide). For the third film under the Aardman/Dreamworks partnership, which was to be a tale of rats living in the sewers of London, the difficulty of animating water in the trademark Aardman style meant that they (perhaps reluctantly) decided to make the venture an all-CG production – a first for the company.
The result was Flushed Away, a serviceable if decidedly un-Aardman film, and one that sticks out as a bit of an ugly duckling in their otherwise stellar filmography. The smartly designed but too-slick CG animation did not sit altogether comfortably in mimicking the style of Aardman’s earlier plasticine-based works. Critic Richard Corliss best hit the nail on the head, writing for Time: “I don’t want to say the Englishmen were corrupted, but I think they allowed their strongest, quirkiest instincts to be tethered.” It was rumoured that Aardman execs were rattled during production by the amount of creative influence Dreamworks were trying to exert on them, and so it eventually proved – these differences, in conjunction with the disappointing commercial performance of the film ($178 million from a $143 million budget) lead to a premature end to the planned five-film deal.
Away from this overbearing influence, Aardman quietly returned two years later with a new Wallace and Gromit adventure – A Matter of Loaf and Death, which followed in the tradition of its forebears by picking up an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short. It was to be, sadly, the last outing with the legendary Peter Sallis as Wallace, as the actor passed away in 2017.
Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)
In 2007, Aardman launched a TV show aimed strictly at young children, rather than the “all ages” demographic they usually woo. This show was Shaun the Sheep, centred around the exploits of the hero of A Close Shave, who funnily enough was around before anyone young enough to watch Shaun the Sheep was even born. It’s a funny old world. The show, which is still ticking along on CBBC to great success and popularity to this day, inspired Shaun the Sheep Movie, which surprised everyone except regular followers of Aardman in being highly enjoyable, utterly charming, and in actual fact one of the best reviewed films of its year. After the liked-but-not-loved Arthur Christmas (2011) and Oscar-nominated but under-the-radar Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (2012), Shaun represented something of a return to form after the company had been stung by its venture into big-money CG features. Indeed, that now-obligatory Oscar nomination beckoned for Shaun, with Aardman ultimately losing out that year to Inside Out.
Shaun, the TV show, spawned its own spin-off with Timmy Time – a series of moral lessons aimed at younger children, and winner of multiple Children’s BAFTAs. By branching out into so many areas of media, Aardman has secured an enduring legacy in animation.
With Early Man earning itself some glowing reviews for its positive message, visual panache, and of course its winning sense of humour, this legacy of Aardman’s is clearly in safe hands going forwards. Aardman have always kept going, and like the heroes of Early Man, they have adapted to each new stage of evolution with grace and flair. They have very much moved with the times, and while their films evoke a certain nostalgia for a bygone age, they will never feel anything less than utterly charming, and reflective of issues that will face us in any era. Not bad going for a few oddballs with a knack for plasticine.