After taking a detour into the world of CGI for last year’s Arthur Christmas, Aardman Animations—the studio behind the Wallace and Gromit films, Chicken Run, “Shaun the Sheep” and more—has returned to stop-motion with The Pirates! Band of Misfits, out in theaters stateside tomorrow, April 27th. Featuring the vocal talents of Salma Hayek (Cutlass Liz), Imelda Staunton (the pirate-hating Queen Victoria), Brian Blessed (The Pirate King), Brendan Gleeson (The Pirate with Gout), Al Roker (The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens), Hugh Grant (The Pirate Captain himself) and more, the film has garnered largely positive reviews since its release in the UK late last month. Of course, there’s no reason to be surprised at that—we are talking Aardman, after all. To herald their return to the Claymation that made them great, we’re taking a look back at some of Aardman’s greatest contributions to the landscape of cinema.
Creature Comforts (1989)
directed by Nick Park
This five-minute short, in which an unseen interviewer asks animals how they like their lives at the zoo, garnered Aardman its first Oscar win. (In fact, of the three films nominated in the Best Animated Short category that year, two of them were Aardman films; the other was A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit, also directed by Park.) While the dialogue isn’t particularly funny by itself, the juxtaposition of mundane dialogue about double glazing coming from the mouth of a lion (“Here, you live in a very small place with all technological advances possible. You have everything sorted out, double glazing, you know, your heating and everything… But you don’t have the space! In Brazil, you have the space!”) is what makes the short hilarious. Aardman would revisit the formula they introduced in Creature Comforts with two subsequent TV series: “Creature Comforts” (a highlight of which is the season one episode “Merry Christmas,” featuring animals pontificating over the lyrics to “The Twelve Days of Christmas”) and the short-lived “Creature Comforts America.”
Not Without My Handbag (1993)
directed by Boris Kossmehl
You can swindle a woman into signing her soul away to the Devil. You can kill her, leave her young niece orphaned and drag her soul down to hell… but if you send her to the fiery pits of hell without her handbag, God help you. That’s the premise of this macabre Aardman short, in which a woman consigned to Hell after being three days late on a washing machine payment crawls back up to Earth—out of her grave, in fact—to retrieve her handbag, only to be followed by the demon (also an employee of Dante Soak ‘n’ Spin) who dragged her down in the first place. The doomed soul’s plucky young niece helps defeat the demon, who has at this point transformed himself into an oversized, demonic replica of the handbag in question, by feeding him so much cake that he eventually explodes. After defeating the demon (and retrieving her handbag, of course) the aunt decides to go back to Hell. “After all, walking the Earth as a living corpse is probably in rather questionable taste,” she tells her niece. “Do come and visit any time!” It’s exactly as disturbing as it sounds.
Wallace & Gromit in The Wrong Trousers (1993)
directed by Nick Park
This Academy Award-winning short was the third to star the lovable duo Wallace and Gromit, following A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit and Wallace and Gromit in A Close Shave. In The Wrong Trousers, the friendship between the pair of inventors is torn apart by an evil criminal mastermind who intends to use Wallace as a pawn in a bank robbery. As tends to be the case in Wallace and Gromit shorts, the dog Gromit discovers the evil penguin’s plan—oh, yeah, the criminal mastermind is a penguin—and tries to warn the naïve Wallace, who at first refuses to believe him. Everything turns all right in the end, but Wallace doesn’t learn to be any less trusting of suspicious strangers; in 2008’s Wallace and Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death, Wallace, now a baker, is nearly blown up by his fiancée who, as it turns out, has a habit of seducing and killing bakers. Oh, Wallace. Have a little skepticism next time.
Chicken Run (2000)
directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park
Aardman teamed up with Dreamworks Animation for its first feature-length film, in which the denizens of a chicken farm hatch (pun intended) an escape plan after discovering the farm’s evil owners are planning to turn them all into chicken pies. Much of the humor comes from how ill-equipped the sheltered chickens are to do much of anything besides lay eggs… fly, for example. Particularly memorable is the ditzy chicken Babs (voiced by Jane Horrocks) who follows up her angry exclamation “I don’t want to be a pie!” with a pitiful-sounding “…I don’t like gravy!” After the success of the film, Aardman again collaborated with Dreamworks for the only feature-length Wallace and Gromit film to date, Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
“Shaun the Sheep” (2007-2010)
This BBC TV series, now in hiatus, is geared toward a younger audience than some other Aardman productions (don’t show a young child Not Without My Handbag unless you want to scar them for life), but it’s missing none of the wit and deadpan humor that has made Aardman films as enjoyable to adults as to children. Each episode of the show—which is devoid of spoken dialogue—centers around a clever, creative sheep named Shaun and his efforts to get himself and his fellow farm animals out of some sort of scrape. The youngest member of Shaun’s flock, the troublemaking lamb Timmy, got his own spin-off, the pre-school comedy series “Timmy Time.”