Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Crudely Drawn Filler Material: The Simpsons in "Babysitting Maggie" (May 31, 1987)


Here's something to ponder - if The Simpsons had started life as a full-fledged TV series from the beginning, rather than as a collection of shorter supporting segments on a comedy sketch show, then would Maggie still have been a part of it? That may seem like an odd question - after all, Maggie is every bit as iconic as any other member of the family, and would your typical Simpsons milieu really be the same without the sounds of her obsessive pacifier-sucking emitting from somewhere in the backdrop? But consider this - Maggie seldom gets to be more than just an orally-fixated runt supplying background noises. Episodes in which she plays a significant part in narrative progression are undeniably thin on the ground, which I suspect has to do with her being such a challenging character to build extended stories around. Maggie is a perpetual infant - that is her charm, but also her great limitation. Her non-stop pacifier cravings may supply her with her characteristic means of expression, but her need to keep the artificial teat clasped between her gums at all times also signifies an attachment to the status quo; an aversion to growth and development. All of the family are bound by some degree by the show's fundamental need to preserve the status quo, but Maggie is the one who offers by far the least scope for expansion, in that she (almost) never speaks, and she's severely limited in her ability to interact with other characters. I seem to recall that David Silverman actually said something along these lines when discussing the then-upcoming theatrical short The Longest Daycare, which gave Maggie a rare turn in the spotlight, only the quote in question now eludes me. If I remember correctly, he stated that they chose to focus on Maggie because her brand of pantomime humour is better suited to a four minute short than to a twenty-two minute episode. She's a character built for very short adventures, not longer-form narratives.

Episodes from earlier on in the series' run did make more of an effort to accommodate Maggie and her unique character traits. "Call of The Simpsons", for example, has that adorable, if rather baffling subplot which sees her getting lost in the wilderness and adopted by a family of grizzly bears. "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge" has her instigating a huge part of the narrative action with her repeated attempts to brutally injure Homer, while "A Streetcar Named Marge" gives her her own miniature arc in which she spearheads a mission to liberate a collection of confiscated pacifiers at a ridiculously authoritarian daycare. As the series went on, however, it seemed that the writers slowly started to lose interest in Maggie's place within the main family dynamic, relegating her increasingly to the same level as family pets Santa's Little Helper and Snowball II, in that she was often more of a prop than a character per se. Maggie still had her uses (most notoriously, she got to be the one to pull the trigger on Mr Burns in the series' much-publicised two-part mystery) but Season 5 onward saw her fade increasingly into the backdrop. There's a Season 11 episode, "Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder", where Homer explicitly refers to Maggie as "the forgotten Simpson", which was less a reflection of Homer's negligent parenting than an admission from the writing staff that they hadn't known what to do with her for yonks.

To ruminate on the question I posed earlier, I certainly wouldn't want any version of The Simpsons that didn't have room for Maggie. She's an ostensibly minor but very vital part of the family dynamic, with her non-verbal mannerisms providing a welcome contrast to wordiness of the rest of the clan. I love the fact that she's such a wild card and you can't often tell what she's thinking - depending on the circumstances, she can be either an oblivious innocent, a precocious whizz-kid, or even unnervingly dangerous. Maggie's the kind of character you underestimate at your own peril, as both Homer and Mr Burns can attest, and if the writing staff aren't interested in probing that amazing infant brain of hers, then that's their loss entirely.

"Babysitting Maggie" is the first Simpsons short to put Maggie at the centre, painting her as a happy-go-lucky tot who seems perpetually oblivious to the horrors of the world she inhabits - not least the cold indifference of her negligent older siblings, who have been tasked with watching her while their parents are out but, predictably, cannot pry their eyeballs away from the seduction of the chattering cyclops. At the mercy of such mean and inattentive souls, Maggie has no chance of survival, or at least she wouldn't if not for the cartoon physics holding her together. As Ullman shorts go, this is is actually one of the darker and more mean-spirited in tone, since it revolves around Maggie wandering around the house unattended and stumbling across deathtrap after deathtrap in her guileless pursuit of a butterfly. Miraculously, Maggie always survives, unshaken and unscathed, but not without enduring a ton of physical abuse that in a more realistic scenario would result in a dead baby or at the very least one with life-changing injuries. Bart and Lisa do not come across terribly well in this one, particularly Bart, who seems to have assumed the mentality of a domestic abuser, as evidenced in this exchange, where Bart produces a retort that seems more befitting of his tormentor Nelson Muntz:

Lisa: I think I heard a thud...

Bart: You'll hear another one if you don't shut your trap. 

Sure, Bart and Lisa had a much more hands-on sibling rivalry back in the day, but there's something about seeing Bart subjugate his younger sister with the threat of physical violence that just rubs me the wrong way. But then "Babysittting Maggie" is an uncomfortable short all-round. It toys with our emotions, knowing all-too well how the sight of an infant in peril arouses our protective urges, every thud Maggie makes as she tumbles down the staircase being engineered to make us wince. Maggie never seems at all hurt or fazed by her non-stop misadventures, leading up to the final punchline, where Maggie's butterfly friend flies away, prompting her to erupt in tears and Bart to dismiss her as "such a baby". An appropriately callous conclusion to a pretty cold-hearted short, I suppose (honestly, the lack of comeuppance for Bart and Lisa is really annoying). I'd note that this kind of calamity without consequence was something that The Simpsons would move increasingly away from as it developed as a concept. (Remember how big a deal it was in the Season 2 episode "Bart The Daredevil" when Homer falls down a canyon and endures some seriously gruesome looking injuries?) There's also a tendency, one maintained all throughout the Ullman shorts, for Maggie to break the fourth wall at the end of skits. She certainly does stare directly into the camera and smile at the viewer a lot, which is her way of signalling that everything is a-okay (and hinting that, despite appearances, Maggie is actually the most canny and self-aware of the Simpsons brood). This was another gag that ultimately got axed as the show settled upon a less overtly cartoony approach.

"Babysitting Maggie" was effectively remade at the end of the Ullman shorts' run as a two-part story, "Maggie In Peril", which again involved Maggie wandering into all kinds of life-threatening danger while under the care of Bart and Lisa, who fail to realise that she's even slipped her playpen. By this stage, The Simpsons had sharped both in confidence and animation quality, so the peril could be staged a lot more dramatically, and Maggie herself doesn't undergo a fraction as much of a physical beating this time around.

Finally, "Babysitting Maggie" establishes that Maggie has something of an affinity for butterflies, so might we view it as a sort of precursor to The Longest Daycare, which involves Maggie befriending a butterfly within the walls of a highly impersonal daycare centre, and protecting it from obliteration at the hands of Baby Gerald? I see it almost as coming full cycle; both shorts entail the challenges of surviving, against the odds, in a world that blatantly doesn't care less, only whereas in "Babysitting Maggie", Maggie is the one who's been left helpless and alone, by The Longest Daycare she's grown savvy enough to comprehend the bleakness of her situation, and is using the skills at her disposal to defend a being even more defenceless than she. It seems as if Maggie is moving up in the world, and figuring out what she can do to make it a marginally more bearable place.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

That Time Jason Voorhees Attacked Ernest Borgnine Out In The Wilderness


Warning: Contains spoilers for the following - The Black Hole (1979), Deliverance (1972), Escape From New York (1981), The Evil Dead (1981), Friday the 13th (1980), Willard (1971)

One year ago, I wrote a piece about strange and unsettling Simpsons endings, where I concluded that the entirety of Season 5 was pretty confounding and tacked it all on as a special bonus round. Amid that there was at least one episode, "Boy-Scoutz 'n The Hood" (1F06), that probably warranted closer examination than I then cared to give it. At the time, my sole acknowledgement of the episode's strange and unsettling ending came in lumping it in with a collection of others described as "very intricate movie parodies which may be lost on you if you haven't seen the films in question", although the more I consider it, the less and less justice I think that statement does in accurately defining just how a freakishly bizarre a route this episode ultimately travels. The central narrative involves Bart enlisting in the Junior Campers and going on a rafting trip with Homer; somewhere along the line the two of them get lost at sea along with Ned and Todd Flanders and uncover the opportunity, in typically unconventional Simpsons fashion, to reaffirm their bond as father and son. The final scene shows the outcome of a parallel narrative, in which special guest celebrity Ernest Borgnine is gathered around a campfire with the rest of the troop and leading them in an upbeat singsong of "Bingo", only for Borgnine to be mauled and potentially killed by an offscreen attacker immediately before we fade to black. I remember seeing the episode as a kid; to say that I was confused and weirded out by that ending would be an understatement. It wasn't just the implication that the guest celebrity got picked off in an extremely brutal manner, but the entire sequence leading up to the attack, in which the camera assumes the perspective of the unseen entity as it encircles the unwitting troop and closes in on Borgnine, all while making the most eerily ungodly breathing noises. Years later, I saw it again and, this time, picked up on Borgnine's line, "It sure is lucky we stumbled upon this old abandoned summer camp!" OH! So it was all an elaborate reference to Friday the 13th? Implying that the attacker would have been that franchise's main villain, Jason Voorhees? Well then, mystery solved.

Or maybe not. Recently, I saw Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1981) for the first time, and one of my main takeaways was just how comparable the ending of that film was with the last few moments of "Boy-Scoutz 'n The Hood". The reference to the old abandoned summer camp would certainly appear to link the ending to Friday the 13th (and imply that the attacker is Voorhees), but that final shot, in which the camera lunges at the screaming Borgnine, would likewise appear to borrow heavily from the closing sequence of The Evil Dead, in which Bruce Campbell's character meets a similar fate (but survives, as per the sequel). It was an intriguing enough development to prompt me to reopen the case once again. If the ending is parodying multiple movies, then can we actually say definitively that it was Jason who did Borgnine in at the end? Wikipedia seems pretty confident that Jason is our culprit, but then we all know how Wikipedia can be (states the current summary in the episode's Wikipedia entry: "At the camp they start singing songs, but are soon attacked and seemingly killed by an unseen figure lurking in the woods (strongly implied to be Jason Voorhees)." What, the kids as well? Bloody hell, that would be a dark outcome). Actually, I think the ending makes a good call in leaving the attacker's identity to our imagination, with Borgnine's "old abandoned summer camp" line being the critical detail that's obviously intended to put us on high alert. Anyone with the vaguest knowledge of the horror genre knows that old abandoned summer camps are not places in which you want to linger, and why should they be? They're emblems of wrecked childhoods and lost innocence. And Jason was hardly unique among slasher antagonists in choosing a summer camp as his port of call (I hate to point out the obvious, but the killer of the original Friday the 13th film wasn't even Jason, but his mother). What's important is the insinuation that Borgnine, in his infinite wisdom, has led these unsuspecting children onto the scene of an archetypal slasher, and is now calling attention to their whereabouts with that godawful "Bingo" song. Still, I suppose what reinforces the suspicion that our assailant is Jason, above all other options, is the music that accompanies the sequence in question. It's all very "Ki Ki Ki Ma Ma Ma", isn't it?


Although let's back up the truck for just a second. Are we seriously suggesting that Jason Voorhees exists in the Simpsons universe? Or the Deadites, for that matter? Either way, I would say that's kind of a stretch outside of a Halloween episode. (It gets even more problematic when you consider that Friday the 13th exists as a work of fiction in the Simpsons universe; Bart mentions it in the first "Treehouse of Horror".) Is there perhaps a more plausible explanation we could find for what killed Borgnine out in the wilderness? Earlier in the episode Patty makes a remark about it being "cougar season" and those things not messing around, so perhaps that's our clue as to what has Borgnine in such a frightful fit at the end - he was stalked and eviscerated by a cougar with respiratory issues. I think that works; it's a lot more mundane than a homicidal maniac with a hockey mask and a machete, but still a pretty terrifying thing to have sneak up on you out in the dead of night. One of the surviving babies from Benji The Hunted grew up to be a Borgnine killer - now, that's some headcannon I can happily bite on.

No, what's really important is that Borgnine dies in the end, giving us the perfect punchline to a career-spanning gag about Borgnine and the tendency his characters have to snuff it before the running time is out. "He even dies in that Simpsons episode he's in!" It's something I'm constantly thinking about whenever I see Borgnine in a movie; that uneasy feeling you get straight off the bat that he's not going to make it. I mean, look at some of the gruesome fates that befall him elsewhere in his filmography. Willard? Rat chow. The Black Hole? Space wreckage. Escape From New York? Death by Kurt Russell's dangerous driving. "Come to think of it," I was bold enough to pose to a friend one day, "have you ever actually seen a movie in which Borgnine survives?" "Marty?" he offered. Oh. Well, I suppose that takes all the fun out of that game, then. Still, it's why I ultimately have to disagree with Wikipedia's assumption that the kids were also killed. The gag becomes considerably less funny if you lose the sensation that Borgnine in particular is being singled out. There's just something about Borgnine that makes him a fun guy to treat horribly. In fact, the chaps on the episode's DVD commentary seem to take special pride in just how ruthlessly they humiliated Borgnine throughout - not only does he wind up being attacked and presumably killed at the episode's climax, but he enters the story by exiting the bathroom and is constantly made to look a buffoon at every turning. Borgnine, for his part, was a good sport to go along with it all, securing himself one of the most memorable and hilarious turns by a guest celebrity on The Simpsons.

What makes the ending to "Boy-Scoutz 'n The Hood" so painfully disturbing (as well as fiendishly funny) is that it's more than just a random slasher parody tacked on for laughs, but rather an entirely logical punchline to the episode's main underlying theme, which has to do with a failed patriarchy. I think the real tip-offs here have less to do with where the characters end up than where they come from. In the end, it's perhaps not so important whether or not you've seen Friday the 13th or The Evil Dead. It helps immeasurably, however, if you understand that an earlier scene from the Borgnine subplot was referencing John Boorman's survival flick Deliverance (1972), which deals with a foursome of city slickers who escape to the Georgia wilderness for a weekend of white water rafting, only to end up battling for their lives when things go hideously wrong. While lost at sea, Homer laments that he didn't get on board one of the "smart rafts", assuming that the rest of the troop are having the time of their lives. We then cut briefly to Borgnine and the other campers who took the "correct" route and see that, actually, they're in an equally precarious situation, paddling their way down a gloomy-looking river as an assortment of shadowy figures whisper and stalk them from the surrounding trees. Which is already ominous enough, but what really pushes this into nightmare territory are the tell-tale twangs of a dueling banjo. OH!

"Boy-Scoutz 'n The Hood" doesn't make its preoccupations clear from the start, but as the episode develops it becomes increasingly obvious that it's about Homer's failure to provide a positive model of masculinity for his son. Even early on, when Homer has only a minimal role in the narrative, we get ample hints of his negligent attitude and its potentially detrimental influence on Bart. Bart signs up to the Junior Campers in a state of heavy intoxication, brought about by family-friendly substance abuse in the form of an all-syrup squishee, and announces his plans to withdraw the following morning; Marge tries to persuade Bart to stick with his new obligations, but Homer contends that Bart is undergoing a crucial rite of passage, insisting that, "Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It's what separates us from the animals!" In a rare instance of self-awareness, Homer appears to immediately recognise the ridiculousness of his statement, for he adds, "Except the weasel." Still, he fails to grasp the deeper insight, that his distinctions between human and animal behavours are hazy and arbitrary at best. Certainly, Homer's own undignified and id-driven behaviours would appear to link him more to the animal kingdom than to the upstanding citizens we shortly encounter in their camper uniforms, and Bart later has fun reducing Homer to the status of a wild animal when he baits and traps him with floor pie as a practical joke.

Bart decides to give the Campers a fair shake when he realises that there are perks to being a member - namely, that he will be periodically excused from school tests to attend meetings. Still, his worst prejudices about the Campers are ostensibly confirmed when he discovers that the local troop receive instructions from the sensitive, feminised Ned Flanders, who teaches them how to craft makeshift bird feeders by smearing peanut butter onto pine cones. Then Bart learns that the Campers are allowed to handle pocket knives, and immediately changes his tune. Initially, Bart's interests lie in his lurid fascination with the brutal survival techniques mastered by the Campers, and he struggles with some of the regulations enforced on him (such as being required to read a confusing book about knife safety, only to obtain a rubber training knife and the rank of "Pussy Willow"). And yet, as the episode goes on and Bart becomes increasingly invested in the troop's activities, it becomes evident that the Campers are answering a much deeper need of his that isn't being fulfilled in his home life; that is, his yearning for a positive male role model. To the contrary, Homer seizes every opportunity to mock his son's new hobby, and he does so with the small-minded petulance of a jealous sibling, not a nurturing and supportive parent. By contrast, Bart's interactions with Ned become evermore genial and respectful. The Simpsons Movie (2007) would later revisit this exact same scenario, with with a major narrative thread involving Bart's increasing frustration with his boorish, infantile father and his gravitation toward Ned as a surrogate patriarch. Here, it's much more implicit - we see Bart adopting Ned's idiosyncratic vernacular when he responds to his salutations with "you know-dilly know it, Neddy." He later laughs at Ned's good-natured gag about "why they call them rapids and not slow-pids!" - much to the chagrin of Homer, who professes not to recognise his son.

The father-son rafting trip that drives the latter half of the episode is intended to reinforce male familial bonds and uphold certain masculine ideals as father and son combine to master the forces of nature together. In practice, the ritual immediately serves to open up wounds and expose parental voids in the children's lives, particularly for one boy, Warren, whose father is absent. Bart, meanwhile, is embarrassed at the thought of how the infantile Homer will measure up to the rest of the troop's fathers. Ned attempts to redress Warren's grievances by arranging for a special celebrity surrogate father to tag along on the trip, and it's here that Ernest Borgnine makes his grand entrance from the bathroom (this is explicitly against the wishes of Warren, who would sooner have his older brother accompany him). Although he is there to fill Warren's void, the episode effectively posits Borgnine as a counterpoint to the narrative's two prominent patriarchal figures, Ned and Homer, neither of whom are embodiments of traditional masculinity. Despite the plainly positive influence that his scout leadership has on Bart, the episode is ambiguous in its treatment of Ned, who is undermined as a "sissy" by the burly Borgnine. Ned clearly has a better sense of self-preservation than Homer, but his own skills prove severely limited when our heroes become lost at sea, for he seems to believe that there is a benevolence, or at the very least a logic to nature that will yield their salvation. This proves false, as exemplified by the trio of dolphins who swim all their way over to the raft to taunt the unfortunate humans about their seemingly inevitable fate, only to disappear immediately after.


It's at this point that we might consider the episode's evocation of Deliverance, which functions as more than just a shorthand for Borgnine's unenviable predicament. Rather, it subconsciously calls to mind our expectations for how a typical male-orientated adventure narrative should play out. If you squint, you can make out the parallels between the narrative trajectory of "Boy-Scoutz 'n The Hood" and that of Deliverance - in both cases, a foursome of characters become cut off from civilisation when a rafting trip goes awry and face the very real prospect of never making it back alive (note: of the four castaways in "Boy-Scoutz 'in The Hood", Todd is by far the most superfluous; he contributes nothing to the episode except to complain when Homer destroys a cassette Walkman he got for his birthday). Once again, I turn to our friend David Ingram, who in Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema identifies Deliverance as part of a cycle of films in which the wilderness becomes "a site for male protagonists to recover an essential, authentic masculinity and thereby to reassert the hegemony of the white male not only over non-human nature, but also over his ethnic, racial and gender subordinates." (p.36) Ingram notes that "Women continue to be excluded from, or marginalized within, these narratives of masculine adventure and self-fulfillment." This much applies to "Boy-Scoutz 'n The Hood", in which the female family members barely feature at all - Marge, Lisa, Maggie, Patty and Selma all appear but have very minimal roles within the episode, being restricted entirely to the sidelines and playing no active role in Bart and Homer's rescue, other than to press for help from the staggeringly inept local police force, who never even begin their search. Where "Boy-Scoutz 'n The Hood" diverges from more traditional voyages of masculine discovery is that, in this case, Mother Nature plainly doesn't give a fuck. The males get lost out at sea, but no opportunities to get touch with an essential masculinity present themselves; instead, they are left to stagnate, physically and emotionally, in a watery wasteland of complete inertia.

Ingram notes that Deliverance is not exactly a straightforward tale of masculine discovery, despite the prominent role played by "a primitive, regenerative violence" in securing the survival of its characters. (p.37) In fact, Deliverance is slyly subversive in its depiction of the fundamental failure of this regenerative violence to offer anything other than mere survival. The film portrays, in the words of Ingram, a state in which "the apocalypse has already happened, and mere survivalism is the only option left." Man will uncover his basic survival mechanisms if pushed to it, but Deliverance does not suggest that such discovery should be considered redemptive, or good for the soul. It is this lack of clear-cut vindication that I think tends to throw some people about the film. Some years back, I can recall reading an online review of Deliverance in which the author complained that the story is deceptively billed as a Man vs. Nature narrative, arguing that, "homosexual country hicks hardly constitute forces of nature!" That's all very hilarious, but in this case they constitute exactly that, and more. The hillbilly hunters who rape one of the foursome and later murder another act as agents for a wilderness that is being slowly devoured and disfigured beyond recognition by industrialisation, signified here by the impending construction of a hydro-electric dam that will leave the surrounding valley underwater. The four city slickers make the journey to the Cahulawassee River in the hopes of mastering the wilderness while there is still a wilderness to be mastered; they are driven by a misguided nostalgia for a masculinity that can be reaffirmed by a weekend excursion of "getting back to nature", and instead find themselves ready victims for a local community looking to vent their frustrations at the changing landscape and the knock-on threats to their own way of life. The protagonists are made to suffer for their hubris and condescension, both by the raging fury of the river itself, and by the brutality of the resident hillbillies. The confrontation likewise brings out the brutality and tribalism in the city slickers, who muster enough of their primal killer instinct to eliminate their attackers (although maybe not - the characters are not entirely sure if the last man they kill was actually involved). Superficially, they have "conquered" the wilderness, and traditional macho "heroics" have won the day, and yet the three survivors return to the city unfulfilled, fearful and visibly damaged, as indicated by the gruesome nightmare that persists in haunting one of the party, Ed (Jon Voight), in the story's epilogue. They make it back to civilisation in a strictly physical sense; spiritually and emotionally, they are still lost in the backwoods as the film closes, with no prospect of rescue or recovery. Hence, Deliverance is not a triumphant tale of masculine survival, but a cautionary tale for those who assume that the waning wilderness welcomes their pity, or their childish fantasies of personal fulfillment.

Nature is less forthcoming with its retribution in "Boy-Scoutz 'n The Hood". As we've previously acknowledged, the Simpsons universe has a tendency to express its fundamental callousness not with active brutality, but with a mocking indifference that's somehow even more scathing. The trio of dolphins who take the opportunity to taunt the doomed humans (no doubt bitter about the friends they lost to those tuna nets) are about as proactive as nature cares to get on this one. The episode's third act is a deliberately slow one, with very little actually happening and the characters barely budging an inch; they are left immobilised, waiting in vain for the rescue that will not be coming. At one point, Homer attempts to hook a fish by baiting it with the group's last remaining cheese doodle, but if you were expecting a dramatic battle between man and fish in the style of Ernest Hemingway (as already occurred in the Season 2 episode, "The War of The Simpsons"), you would be sorely disappointed; the fish instantly escapes with the doodle and the scene ends with Homer feebly attempting to coax if back to the raft as if he were calling to his pet cat. Here, nature barely has to lift a finger to show up man's ineptitude. The only opportunity the characters get to assert their masculinity in a traditional sense occurs through human intervention; a plane appears on the horizon and Homer seizes the chance to undermine Ned's leadership by refusing to let him commandeer the flare gun, on the grounds that, "This ain't one of your church picnic flare gun firings! This is the real thing!" This petty attempt at posturing ends in disaster, however, for Homer merely succeeds in bringing down the plane with the blast he fires; the pilot survives and is immediately picked up by a rescue team who apparently don't notice the group of emaciated castaways only metres away. In the absence of any active challenges from nature, the group are left to bicker uselessly among themselves; Homer's numerous poor decisions throughout the ordeal are visibly rooted in his aversion to being bested by the effeminate Ned, and yet his every attempt to assume the role of alpha male serves only to reveal his buffoonery or, deeper still, his stifling, childlike terror that they will not survive.

In the end, the primitive survival mechanism that saves the group comes not from regenerative violence or traditional heroics, but from Homer's tenacity in locating where in the vicinity there are hamburgers to be devoured. Salvation arrives through another symbol of industralisation and its exploitative regard for the natural world, coupled this time with the ludicrous banalities of modern consumerism - Krusty the Clown has erected one of his heinous fast food restaurants on an unmanned oil rig just out of sight of the raft, and Homer's astute ability to trail the smell of burgers cooking brings them back to civilisation, and to a mountain of greasy calories. Homer saves the day, although he does so with the scavenging instincts of a raccoon following its nose to the nearest freshly-filled trash can. It is another example of the kind of scenario described by Ingram in which the apocalypse has already happened and survivalism is the only option left, only in this case survivalism involves the adaptation of the human animal to a world that has been warped and pillaged to truly grotesque degrees by a consumerism gone mad with power (perhaps the greatest disruption to the potential romance of our heroes' adventure is the revelation that the group were never really "cut off" from the comforts of civilization, as there was a fast food restaurant only a mile or so away). Crucially, it is the crude, bestial qualities that previously made Homer such an embarrassment in Bart's eyes that have proven most useful; in place of having to embody a more authentic vision of manliness in order to earn his son's respect, Homer demonstrates that he's pretty much fine the way he is, and Bart accepts him as such. Homer ends up rebuffing Bart's assurances that he's proud to have him as father, for his interests lie purely in satisfying his overpowering appetite, and for once Bart seems happy to emulate his example. The final image of the main narrative shows Homer and Bart side by side, devouring the Krusty burgers with the same carnal voraciousness, thus reaffirming their bond as father and son.

Far from upholding traditional notions of masculinity, "Boy-Scoutz 'n The Hood" uses the parallel narrative with Borgnine and the fathers who take the "correct" route to casually mock such ideals. The fate that befalls Borgnine and his charges becomes something of a double-edged gag; on the one hand, it provides a direct contrast to the overwhelming passivity of Homer and Bart's predicament, hinting that a more dramatic and exciting narrative is happening elsewhere and the viewer is largely being made to sit out on it. This narrative contains hints of a more traditional showdown between man and wilderness, with a vengeful nature offering up the complete works - the vindictive hillbillies of Deliverance and, later, a raging grizzly bear, which Borgnine is unable to fend off due to Homer having stolen his knife. Here, the party get ample opportunities to demonstrate their mastery of the wilderness, and yet they fail at every turning; in fact, Borgnine only succeeds in leading them deeper and deeper into oblivion, until they come face-to-face with the greatest nightmare of all in the form of Jason Voorhees (or possibly a Deadite). Consider this much: there were plenty of other fathers when the trip began, but by the final scene the party has been reduced to just the kids and Borgnine, which raises questions as to what became of the other adults. Our dark, worm-filled gut reaction might be to suppose that they were killed by the hillbillies from earlier. I have to say that I don't buy it; if those kids had just witnessed their fathers being raped and murdered by a bunch of rogue hillbillies, I think they would be a heck of a lot more traumatised than they clearly are. They wouldn't be sitting around the campfire and singing "Bingo". More likely that they got separated from the kids and Borgnine, or that they left to look for help. Still, the episode leaves us with the undeniably troubling imagery of a severely depleted group and these unfortunate kids having to look to Borgnine as their sole caregiver. Borgnine may have dismissed Ned and Homer earlier as "the sissy and the bald guy", and yet they emerge from their brush with oblivion whereas he does not - Borgnine ends up embodying the very worst of a patriarchy exposed as hollow and ineffectual when faced with a genuine crisis, and his reward for that is to be obliterated by the horror genre's second most famous mama's boy (appropriate, since he already died at the hands of the genre's third most famous in Willard).

As to that problem I raised earlier as to how a character of Jason Voorhee's stature can possibly exist in the Simpsons universe, I'd say the answer to that is that Borgnine has led the children so far off course that he has effectively steered them away from the reality of the Simpsons and into an entirely different ballpark altogether. For this group, the apocalypse has also already happened, although they are unaware of just how drastically they have strayed beyond the border dividing a particularly punishing camping trip and the territory of nightmares made manifest. I would prefer to stand by what I said previously about only Borgnine getting the chop and the young campers presumably making it out okay. Still, the grim truth is that we never see any of these kids again (it's a shame, because I really feel for that Warren kid) - if they survived their encounter with Voorhees then odds are that they fell off the edge of the Earth shortly afterwards. Once you've completely departed the fabric of your own reality than you have nowhere to go but nihility.

 

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Crudely Drawn Filler Material: The Simpsons in "Bathtime" (March 19, 1989)


One of the earliest underlying gags of the Ullman shorts (and one which inevitably lost its bite as the animation gradually became tidier and the inherent grotesqueness of Groening's character designs, with their bulging eyeballs and gaping overbites, became softer, even familiar) was that the Simpson family were such a feral, vulgar and primordial-looking bunch that any attempt at civilised behaviour on their part came across as basically gestural, a thin veneer of respectability that was always threatening to crack at any moment. Even their perfunctory efforts at personal grooming play like exercises in futility, feeble attempts to scrub off the messiness of day-to-day living so deeply ingrained in their curtains and carpet fibres that they become thoroughly encrusted the instant they emerge from their bathroom (this is a gag played to very on-the-nose degrees in the Season 1 episode "Some Enchanted Evening", in which Homer shaves his five o'clock shadow only for it grow back almost instantly). To that end, it should come as no real shock to us to learn that Bart would sooner not make the effort at all.

Even if you haven't plundered the full catalogue of Ullman shorts in extensive depth, odds are that you know "Bathtime", which is the only Ullman short other than "Good Night" to be featured in its entirety in the Season 7 episode "The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular", and is most notable for Bart's affectionate impersonation of marine documentarist Jacques-Yves Cousteau. This nod to Cousteau feels, on the one hand, like an expression of nostalgia for the documentaries of yore, playfully contrasting Bart's bathtime experience with the eerie undersea voyages through unchartered realms that seem more like ghostly, half-remembered dreams when stacked up against the banalities of modern domestic living. On another level, it taps into that strange sensation one gets, when watching early Simpsons, that we are observing our own lifestyle and behaviours superficially represented as the behaviours of another species altogether. At their heart, the Ullman shorts are a celebration of the human animal, and how that animal has continued to thrive as we have ventured ever further down the path of domesticity. The early shorts in particular give such a loving focus to the cruder aspects of the human condition that they almost play like a collection of miniature mockumentaries upon the survival of the human animal in its new natural habitat; the perpetual caveman who managed to adapt to the modern world by putting on a shirt and pants and wiring up a TV.

"Bathtime" opens with the now-familiar scenario of Bart trying to hide himself away from parental authority - this time, the looming threat comes in the form of his Sunday night bath, which Bart is determined to avoid. Having apparently not learned anything from his experience in "Closeted" (or, being so averse to the prospect of bathing that he's prepared to take the risk of being made to repeat the ordeal), Bart conceals himself in his bedroom closet in the hopes that Homer won't flush him out. On this occasion his own uncouth body fails him, for an ill-timed belch alerts Homer to his whereabouts, and he ends up being unceremoniously hauled down the corridor in the buff and tossed into the bath. There's a pretty nice perspective shot in which we see Homer searching for, and finally closing in on Bart through the closet keyhole, although some eye-poppingly weird animation also worms its way in, as usual, with Homer making some odd St. Vitus Dance hand gestures right after dumping Bart in the bath. Bart's objections to being subjected to this weekly cleansing ritual appear to stem at least partly from Homer's tendency to run the water ridiculously cold, but Bart copes with the situation by running the hot tap and escaping into fantasy, in which he envisions himself as the deep sea adventurer in his own version of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, wittily (and haphazardly) transforming the domestic sphere into an undersea wilderness (which of course becomes all-too real when he neglects to turn the tap off).

Bart's daddy issues rear their head yet again when his search for the wily and elusive washcloth is interrupted by the appearance of an octopus-shaped bath toy that bears more than a passing resemblance to Homer, and he is compelled to tussle with it. The Homer-opus makes for a charming sight gag, one that's reinforced when Homer opens the bathroom door and is knocked down by the bathwater deluge, and he and the toy are shown side-by-side in the aftermath. This linking of Homer and deep sea beast also foreshadows the punchline of the short, in which the line separating refinement from barbarity is shown to be far thinner in Homer's case than that of his belching, bath-avoiding son. Bart comes out of the ordeal "clean as a whistle", a fact he is happy to flaunt before Homer, but Homer's final response is to cast aside all aspirations of civility and embrace savagery, as he chases after Bart in one of his overpowering gorilla-like rages. Bart won't stay clean for long.

Strange Picture Watch: We see portraits of Marge and an unidentified sea captain, which ties in with the nautical theme. Also, for some reason the Simpsons appear to have a framed picture depicting a boot with a bare hairy leg sticking out of it. If there's any deeper subliminal symbolism to be mined there, then don't ask me to decode it.

Monday, 14 January 2019

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #8: The Sun Country Polar Bear


Coca-Cola weren't the only brand to attempt to forge a connection in consumers' heads between the charms and mystique of the magnificent ice bear and the seductive delights of a sugar-filled beverage. In the mid-1980s, bar-goers were heavily into something called "wine coolers", a drink comprised of wine, fruit juice and lashings and lashings of sweet addictive sugar. The Canadaigua Wine Company of upstate New York was one establishment eager to make a killing on this hot new fashion, and in 1986 launched a campaign founded on the observation that consumers are drawn in most fervently by two kinds of advertising hook - endorsements by celebrities and endorsements by freaky-looking animals; in both cases, creatures whose bizarre eccentricities were intended to embody everything fun and enlivening about the brand in question. Hence, the Sun Country Polar Bear campaign was conceived as a means of getting the best out of each possible world. Why a polar bear? "Cool and refreshing" explained Steven H. Rotter, of the Towne, Silvestein, Rotter ad agency.

Unlike the playful, puppy-like polars of the Coca-Cola ads, Sun Country were quite content to make their own eccentric ursine an icon of sheer terror; aesthetically, we find ourselves back in the territory of George the Hofmeister Bear, tasked with getting cosy with the horrifying visuals of a human figure buried beneath the sheathings of a moth-eaten party suit. A bear on the outside and a human within, the mascot's heart and soul were distinctively those of a chameleon, in that he (or she) had no set personality and took on the characteristics of whichever celebrity was playing him (or her) in any given spot. The ads followed a formula in which a different celebrity, their features obscured by the kinky furs of that infernal bear costume, would deliver a customised endorsement of the Sun Country Wine Cooler, removing the bear's head at the end in order to confirm their true identity while delivering a final punchline. No doubt intended as a light-hearted lampooning of the frivolous nature of celebrity endorsements, the ads became an exercise in the marrying of the familiar with the dislocating - the dark, lifeless eyes of that artificial polar seem all the more uncanny when matched with the reassuring vocals of an esteemed celebrity. Numerous celebrities lined up to receive the Sun Country treatment and endure the indignity of having to clad up in that repulsive suit. In an effort to appeal to as broad a demographic as possible, the line-up included everyone from Michael Nader of Dynasty fame to The Four Tops, although none did a more cracking job of it than Vincent Price. It goes without saying that when you get Vincent in to dress up as a polar bear and talk about the terrors of being inundated with inferior wine cooler brands, you're going to have one devilish delight of an advert on your hands.


The one celebrity who was not required to add his persona to the bear's ever-increasing repertoire of alternate guises was Ringo Starr, who was allowed to forgo the costume and extol the virtues of downing alcoholic pop entirely as himself. This makes sense when you appreciate that getting Ringo on board was a pretty big deal, for it marked the first time that one of the Beatles had ever agreed to do a paid celebrity endorsement. Obviously, Canadaigua wanted to flaunt their little drummer boy for all that he was worth (he was costing them something within the seven figures; why wouldn't they aim to show his face as much as possible?). This much apparently came as a disappointment to Ringo, who was looking forward to the opportunity to model the then-infamous fursuit. Still, the bear did not entirely disappear from the scene once the former Beatle took up endorsement duties, for Ringo was shown interacting with him in the closing moments of each spot, only now his antics were strictly silent. Deprived of his ever-changing celebrity vocals, the beady-eyed bear made the complete descent into the maelstrom of nightmares, even with the wise-cracking Ringo at his side. Incidentally, why Ringo? "Classic with a dry and humorous sense," said Canadaigua chairman Marvin Sands.


Classic Ringo may be, but not even he could prevent the thirst for wine coolers from petering out as the decade entered its twilight years. Consumer interest waned, and by the dawn of the 1990s, the cloying concoction was all but extinct, with increased excise taxes on wine proving the final nail in the coffin in 1991. The wine cooler was officially wiped out, leaving cheaper malt beverages like the Zima to the fill the evolutionary niches. Like many of the advertising icons we've already covered, the cooler-sipping ursine's time in the sun was relatively short-lived, and he was ultimately left to stagnate in his decade of origin. Still, we all know that freaky advertising animals never die, they just get buried in the deep dark recesses of your subconscious. I'm pretty sure that somewhere in mine there's a perpetual party going on where the Sun Country Polar and George the Hofmeister Bear are mingling and Spuds McKenzie and his Spudettes are sprawled out across the couch in an intoxicated stupor. That's a thought that I am more-or-less willing to live with.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Aardman and The T-Birds (A PG Tip For The Ages)


If, as we've established, one of Aardman's claims to being a very British institution is the obvious appreciation displayed by its most famous characters for the joys of the traditional English teatime, it seems only natural that they would make the transition into selling tea, having already animated campaigns for everything else under the sun - most famously its "Creature Comforts" campaign for the Electricity Board in the early 1990s.

Back in January 2002, PG Tips attracted some media attention when they announced that they were finally retiring their long-running Chimpanzee Tea Party ads after more than 45 years. By then, the chimps had been going long enough to have secured a record as the UK's longest-lived advertising campaign - despite increased concerns about the ethics of a campaign which revolved around making chimpanzees exhibit highly unnatural behaviours while dressed up in human clothing, for an entire generation of tea drinkers, PG Tips just wasn't PG Tips unless it was being rattled at you by an ape in a dressing gown. A new millennium was dawning, however, and cultural taste was finally shifting. The formal reason for the chimp ads getting the boot was that contemporary twentysomethings weren't responding to them, dismissing them as this antiquated circus show that their parents were weirdly besotted with. Hence, the T-Birds were conceived as a way of making the brand more accessible to the Friends generation, with the intention of moving away from the family sitcom stylings of the chimp ads and into the flatshares of 21st century Britain. The new campaign followed the slice of life adventures of a tetrad of anthropomorphic avians living underneath the same roof and facing everyday problems that modern young people could relate to - crummy apartments, dodgy roommate applicants, neighbours angling for their precious Tips teabags, etc.

The original advert introduced three of the four birds - Maggie, a London pigeon, Pete, a Geordie starling, and Tom, an Irish owl. Maggie and Pete have a tendency to butt heads and get into flaps over the most mundane of life's problems. Tom, by contrast, is stoic to the point where he could be mistaken for idle, but the fact that he's an owl, that eternal companion of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, is our subtle indication that he's actually the smart one of the group. Sure enough, it's usually Tom who has the answer whenever things look overwhelming - that is, to pull out the teabags and encourage his friends to have a "PG moment". I get the coding behind making the character who directly endorses your product an owl, although it must be said that Tom feels vaguely out of place in this particular dynamic, in that he's so much stouter and brawnier than the other birds and I'm constantly reminded of the fact that he's a bird of prey and would therefore be feasting on the smaller birds he's shown cosying up with.

The first two ads had an arc that showed the T-Birds moving into their apartment and acquiring a fourth tenant, Holly the blue tit. Holly was chosen over numerous other applicants because she shared the T-Birds' love of PG and didn't seem too strange (although from my perspective Holly is the kind of garrulous roommate who would unquestionably drive me mad. Should have gone with the guitar-strumming chicken). After that, the ads became more episodic, showing tiny snapshots of the T-Birds' day-to-day lives. Which frankly weren't that interesting, although I suppose that was the whole point. Once you get past the fact that the characters are birds, there's not a lot to these ads and what little there is is kind of mundane - which I suspect was a deliberate tactic in order to keep within the notion that the birds faced only relatable, everyday problems (certainly, nothing encapsulated the banality of 00s living quite like Maggie's suggestion that they deck out their new living room in Aztec Sunrise). Tone-wise, the ads were clearly going for genial over laugh out loud funny, presumably to simulate the calming effects that drinking tea is touted to have on the drinker; the results are entirely agreeable, although the witty visual panache of the Creature Comforts and Scotch Tape Skeleton ads is largely lacking (for one thing, the ads seldom, if ever, do anything interesting with the central concept of the characters being birds, to the point where they may just as well be humans).

The prosaic nature of the ads could be the reason why, despite the initial media interest, the T-Birds never really left much of a dent in popular culture and the campaign proved relatively short-lived, lasting out until only the middle of the decade. The first characters to displace them as PG shillers were Aardman's own Wallace and Gromit, who had a new feature film to promote and ran a tie-in offer with PG where you could get your own Gromit shaped-mug complete with thermostat feature (Gromit's nose turned red when you put the water in; it was way cool). After that, PG Tips decided to go the simian route once again and enjoyed success with a rather bizarre case of mascot recycling - they acquired Monkey, a puppet character who'd served, briefly, as mascot for the ill-fated ITV Digital before the service went bust in 2002, and even went so far as to reunite him with his former co-star, comedian Johnny Vegas. Monkey had more luck in his second lease of life, and continues to endorse PG Tips to this day.


Honestly, my main takeaway from the T-Birds series is that the other birds are kind of jerks to Tom, despite his being at the top of this particular food chain. I am not one to indulge in dark, morbid theories about innocuous characters, but I occasionally entertain the idea that the ads came to premature end because Tom finally tired of having to stick the kettle on every time the other three blew their tops and scarfed the lot of them down whole. PG moments are all well and good, but sometimes an owl's just got to be an owl.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Wallace and Gromit Go Chicken (aka Aardman Should Lay Off The Crackers and Cheese)


Back in the summer of 2000, Bristol-based claymation studio Aardman Animations were about to take a bold leap into the dark unknown. Over the past decade, one Aardman employee, Nick Park, had attained breakout stardom with a trilogy of shorts about an absent-minded inventor named Wallace and his mute mongrel Gromit (and a standalone short, Creature Comforts, which provided inspiration for a popular series of electricity ads in the early 1990s). After snagging three Oscars for Best Animated Short, Park had proven that he was no one hit wonder, and Aardman as a whole had caught the eye of a number of major movie moguls interested in turning their Plasticine craftmanship into gold. Now they would get to see if there was a market for their brand of tea-sipping whimsy in mainstream Hollywood, with their first ever feature film, Chicken Run, directed by Nick Park and Peter Lord and co-produced with DreamWorks Animation, set for a major theatrical release. The BBC aired a documentary "Wallace and Gromit Go Chicken" as part of their late-night documentary series, Omnibus, on Wednesday 28th June 2000 in anticipation of the film's UK release on 30th June (check out the genome listing here). I happened to get the whole thing on tape and, thankfully, my recording survived the mold epidemic that wiped out most of the VHS tapes at my parents' house in 2005. I had the documentary transferred onto disc so that I could preserve it forever. And now, go through it with a fine comb, and eighteen and a half years' worth of hindsight, in order to reflect on how things have worked out for Aardman in the long-term, and where they presently stand in an animation industry that has expanded considerably since the dawn of the millennium.

"Wallace and Gromit Go Chicken" was narrated by a pre-House Hugh Laurie.

Chicken Run was one of the early releases of DreamWorks Animation, which was founded in 1994 by director Steven Spielberg, former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and music mogul David Geffen, and consisted largely of animators from Spielberg's previous, less successful attempt at creating his own major animation studio, Amblimation. The intention was to establish a Hollywood animation studio that could provide serious competition for Disney, who were currently enjoying immense success with their 90s Renaissance and had had the playing field pretty much to themselves for decades (Don Bluth's challenge to the throne in the mid-1980s being one of the few blips in the road). Katzenberg, of course, had left Disney on famously bad terms, and the box office warfare between Antz and A Bug's Life in 1998 was an an early indicator that the rivalry was not going to be an especially amicable one. In 1997, DreamWorks entered into partnership with Aardman Animations, whose profile had increased considerably in recent years thanks to the triple Oscar victories of the upstart Nick Park for Best Animated Short, and who were looking to secure financing for their first feature film, a love letter to The Great Escape starring a plucky squad of captive poultry with their sights set on freedom. Katzenberg was professedly a great fan of Park's first Oscar-winning short, Creature Comforts, and had long wanted to work with Aardman, although if he was hoping to establish the same kind of long-running, highly profitable symbiosis that Disney has with Pixar, it was not to be. The partnership was terminated in early 2007 after a total of three features - Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Flushed Away.

"Go Chicken" is an interesting documentary to watch now, not merely because of all the positivity it lavishes upon a professional relationship that ultimately proved to be quite ill-fated, but because it came out right before some very significant turning points within the Hollywood animation industry. The monster success of Shrek in 2001 was obviously the major game-changer, both for DreamWorks as a studio and Hollywood animation as a whole. Before that, DreamWorks Animation were plainly struggling to find their niche - they were keen to establish themselves as an edgy contender to Disney's throne, one that made the kind of bold, subversive pictures the House of Mouse wouldn't touch with a fifty-foot pole, but at the same time they needed to remain close enough to the Disney model in order to exploit its commercial viability. And the early results were mixed. The Prince of Egypt (1998) was well-made and well-received but The Road to El Dorado (2000) was a confused and confusing mess, a film that just couldn't decide what the fuck it wanted to be. It didn't help matters that, by the time DreamWorks had set up shop and entered the fray, the Disney animation Renaissance of the 1990s was almost over. With hindsight, the success of Toy Story in 1995 might seem like an obvious harbinger of doom for traditional animation, but truth is that Disney were already seeing a decline in box office receipts before 3D animation had really had the chance to cement itself as a cultural force in its own right. Their late 90s offerings still made money, but not as much as anticipated based on trends that appeared to be gathering steam around the middle of the decade. DreamWorks Animation was hardly unique in having gotten to the 2D animation party just a little too late - 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers had also established animation departments in the mid-90s only to find that, by the time their first features were ready for release at the back-end of the decade, the golden egg-laying goose was not looking so perky. The Hollywood animation explosion of the 90s looked as if it might crash and burn before it had even taken flight.

Then Shrek happened, and suddenly we had the novel phenomenon of a non-Disney/Pixar animated feature that everyone was talking about. Shrek was a meaner, grosser creation than anything Disney would have dreamed up, and the movie-going public, bored stiff with Disney's McDonaldized treatment of its recent features (honestly, I think this was a far greater factor in the decline of 2D animation than Pixar's appearance, at least in the short-term) embraced the explicitly anti-Disney snarkfest with both arms. The wildly enthusiastic response to Shrek was everything Katzenberg had ever dreamed of, and the film would prove to be arguably the most influential animated feature of the 2000s. Pixar may have been the animation studio with all the pedigree as we entered the age of the CG-animated toon, but Shrek was the flick to whom the other studios looked for inspiration. The future was fart jokes. And Aardman, bless them, were maybe just a little too purposely quaint to survive in this increasingly perverse market. But Shrek was still the better part of a year away at the time that "Go Chicken" aired. The future of Hollywood animation seemed a little more up in the air at this point and the UK was genuinely excited to see its major animation studio rubbing shoulders with the big boys in Tinseltown. We were all expecting great things, and the Omnibus documentary encapsulated the thrill of the moment, as well as some of the trepidation.

"Go Chicken" opens by acknowledging just how enthusiastically the world had embraced Park's signature creations Wallace and Gromit, who were now such an iconic duo on an international scale that they had even starred in a Japanese commercial for Glico pudding in 1999 - as such, Laurie comments on how surprising it is that the Yorkshire inventor and his nonplussed pooch "don't even get a walk-on" in Aardman's first shot at feature success. (Side-note: I recall reading an interview with Park from around the same time in which he confirmed that they did indeed consider giving Wallace and Gromit a cameo in Chicken Run, but ultimately decided that they didn't fit with this particular world. Good call, although I feel they missed a trick in not giving Feathers McGraw, the thieving penguin who is able to masterfully disguise himself as a chicken, a background cameo.*) One of the funniest parts of "Go Chicken" is when Park admits that he finds it "very embarrassing" to compare the animation in the first W&G short, A Grand Day Out, to their later adventures, and goes so far as to state that "I'd be hesitant to even hire someone who was of the standard of A Grand Day Out now."

There's a lot of talk throughout "Go Chicken" about Park's animation, and Aardman in general, being so quintessentially British, although what does that mean, exactly? Peter Sallis, who gave Wallace his vocals and characteristic Yorkshire accent, and is otherwise best known for playing Norman Clegg in the long-running BBC sitcom Last of The Summer Wine, is cited as one key ingredient in instilling the W&G films with their authentically English flavour. Park himself suggests that what makes his work so identifiably British is that "it's so expressive with the eyes." That and the characters drink tea.


Renowned film-maker and former Python boy Terry Gilliam has own his stab at defining the qualities that have made Park's creations so endearing to the world:

"There's an Englishness that I think the world wants, and it seems to be more cosy, more calm, more reflective, more - less frenzied, I think...maybe it's just a reaction to the frenzy that's around us. Everything in the world's getting faster and noisier and we're inundated with stuff. And if you then slide back to the teapot, an English teapot, or tea, or anything...aah, this is comfortable, this feels good, it's simple, it's quiet...and I think the way Aardman's work always functions is it's a small world with just a few little people, very simple problems and, er, it's not shrieking and shouting at you, it's very calming and funny."

Already I see a paradox shaping up. Gilliam suggests that the qualities that make Aardman so fundamentally Aardman are their simplicity and relatively small scopes, and yet Hollywood productions are traditionally the antithesis of such things. How were the calm tea-drinkers of Bristol to run with the big dogs of Hollywood without compromising everything that their fans had grown to love them for in the first place?



Park then takes us into his parents' attic, where he spent a lot of his childhood making a bunch of animated films starring a character named Walter Rat, whom Park states he'd always dreamed would be his Mickey Mouse (Walter has not appeared in any of Park's subsequent projects - unless he's one of the rats in Wallace's basement in A Grand Day Out - but, hey, there's still time to give the angling rodent his turn in the spotlight). Says Park, "I always thought I'll never get anywhere if I watch telly all my life, so I used to force myself to come up here and carry on with all these projects." Ah, that's where the rest of us went wrong, then.

"Go Chicken" then gives us the obligatory run-down of the history of the studio as a whole. Park is of course the most famous creative mind at Aardman, so a lot of people assume that he founded the studio. FALSE! In actuality, Aardman Animations was initially established by young animators Peter Lord and David Sproxton in 1972 (and named after the star of their very first commissioned piece, a 2D animated skit featuring an accident-prone superhero - I do not know if Aardman the character has appeared in anything since, but his legacy certainly lives on). Lord and Sproxton formally set up shop in Bristol in 1976, and Park joined as an employee about a decade into the Bristol studio's lifespan. Before Park, Aardman was most famous for a Plasticine character named Morph, and for various skits they did for Vision On, a BBC series targeted at hearing impaired children, but they also did a lot of experimental pieces for the then-fledgling Channel 4 (back when the channel intended to establish itself as an avante-garde alternative to the Beeb and ITV). Other Aardman projects in the 1980s included a variety of advertising assignments and the award-winning music video to Peter Gabriel's 1986 hit "Sledgehammer".

There's a protracted sequence where Lord talks about Morph and demonstrates his techniques for changing Morph's expressiveness by applying tension to different areas of the figure's body. I find it terribly hard to keep a straight face during this sequence as I'm reminded heavily of the "If I move his finger just a tiny amount..." sketch from that episode of The Fast Show.


Lord acknowleges how indebted he and Sproxton always were to the reigning king of stop motion wizardry, Ray Harryhausen, who pioneered a technique known as "Dynamation" that allowed him mix up the backgrounds and foregrounds of pre-recording live action footage and give the impression that his stop motion models had been integrated into a live action world. Lord states that seeing Jason and The Argonauts (1963) for the first time was a much more exciting experience for him personally than seeing Star Wars for the first time, as he was fascinated by the stop motion creatures; they had presence and personality, and it was not immediately obvious how the effects were done (I would certainly agree - the Talos sequence from Jason scared the snot out of me as a kid and I still think it looks amazing today). Harryhausen is interviewed briefly and talks about his techniques, including his remarkably articulate skeleton figures with all the ball and socket joints of a real skeleton. During this sequence, my eyes cannot help but be drawn to that tantalising VHS collection behind him, and I really regret that the resolution isn't good enough for me to zoom in and identify some of the titles.


The wittiest bit of editing in "Go Chicken" must be credited whoever had the idea to follow up footage of the skeleton fight from Jason and The Argonauts with footage the more benign skeleton from the Scotch VHS cassette ads that were animated by Aardman in the late 1980s. The skeleton, who was voiced by Deryck Guyler, had a seriously catchy music routine in which he would strut up and down and extol the virtues of Scotch's Lifetime Guarantee, whereby every new recording would be as good as the last, or they'd give you your money back. Presumably, Scotch's definition of "lifetime" didn't extend beyond the lifetime of VHS as a format (thinking about it, 2000 might also have been the very last year in which you could buy VHS tapes over DVDs and not be viewed as some quaint old fogey), so don't bother sending them your degraded Scotch VHS tapes now.


It's also noted that Aardman were currently doing a series of commercials for Chevron in the US. Conceptually, these were quite similar to the Creature Comforts ads, although nowadays they look like an eerie predecessor to that one Pixar franchise that no one likes.


I should admit at this point that there are a few areas in which "Go Chicken" really gets my hackles up - crucially, its ruminations on what Park's success did for the studio. "Go Chicken" might give Lord and Sproxton their due in terms of their importance to the history of the studio, but equally it seems all-too eager to impart the narrative that Aardman were headed down a dangerous path before Park came along and effectively "saved" the studio - namely, that they had fallen into the pitfall of trying to make their animations serious ("increasingly downbeat", in the words of Laurie's narration). Serious animation, "Go Chicken" would have us believe, is the stuff of artsy fartsy fantasy. It simply cannot be. Cartoons must all manic and zany, as the gods intended. For this, whose expert opinion would they consult but that of Mike Scully, who was currently working as the showrunner of The Simpsons, and chips in here to deliver easily the most enraging statement of the entire documentary:

"I think animation just really lends itself to comedy much more than drama, because you want to take advantage of the fact that you are animated. So you want to do things with the animation. If you want to have a character's head spin around or their eyes pop out or execute some crazy stunt that you can only do in animation, then funny is the best way to do it. If it's done right and you really know what the character is feeling and how important whatever is going on is to them, then that's where...I think the drama is in there. Kind of, you know, sneak it in. In between the laughs."

Ugh.

To put this into perspective, when Scully took over as showrunner for The Simpsons, the series went from being one of the most innovative and intelligently-written of its generation to a pale shadow of its former self that couldn't make a hyena laugh, and I think his above words are actually very revealing as to what made his direction of the series so misguided. Under Scully, The Simpsons lost all sense of restraint and subtly and took a deadly plunge into the maelstrom of the wacky. Apparently, Scully was a staunch believer that wackiness was animation's raison d'ĂȘtre. I do not agree that animation is inherently better suited to comedy than to more dramatic material. I think the wonderful thing about animation is that you can do and create absolutely anything with it. You can have haunting, sombre animation, like Jimmy Murakami's When The Wind Blows (1986), highbrow, experimental animation like Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940), full-on horror animation like Dave Borthwick's The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993) and mind-blowing, psychedelic animation like George Dunning's Yellow Submarine (1968), to name but a few. I appreciate that early Aardman was so raw and experimental, and I regret that they ultimately abandoned that side as Park's aesthetic became the defining one. Creature Comforts and the Wallace & Gromit shorts are great films, of course, and Park's breakout success was very well-deserved, and I'll certainly concede that Aardman would likely not have achieved mainstream success had they stuck with esoteric arthouse pieces in the vein of Going Equipped (see below). All the same, I think it's a genuine shame that a project as ambitious and unreservedly desolate as Babylon would probably not get made at Aardman today. Babylon is not mentioned in "Go Chicken", as it seldom is in Aardman retrospectives. This might be because the project was conceived and written by an outsider, David Hopkins, who commissioned Lord and Sproxton to direct it as part of his Sweet Disaster series, but I think it has more to do with the fact that the film is the complete antithesis of everything that Aardman eventually became. Odd then, that Babylon is my personal favourite Aardman short, perhaps even my favourite Aardman film, period. I admire it for all the reasons that Aardman are probably quite reluctant to bring it up now - it's so dark, bleak and nightmarish, and it deals with the kind of knicker-wetting subject matter (an impending nuclear apocalypse) that I doubt the studio would go for today.

Going Equipped, Peter Lord's contribution to the 1989 Channel 4 series Lip Sync, is singled out as an example of one of Aardman's near-fatal flirtations with the lure of solemnity. Lord talks about about this film (an animated monologue in which a young robber on probation reflects on how his life of crime has defined and entrapped him) and seems entirely willing to fall in line with the narrative that Aardman was on the wrong track before Park came along. He doesn't exactly talk up his work on this one:

"We'd made a lot of these films with characters talking that were really very naturalistic - especially the last one I made, which was called Going Equipped, which was highly naturalistic, where the figure was quite close to human proportions. Cartoony, but quite close. I kind of lost faith in it, because I thought that I was just moving closer and closer towards realism, which is actually fairly futile...what I wanted to do was to be expressive. I wanted characters that would act really well, and my solution was, if human beings act so well and so subtly, the smallest gestures, then the closer I get to that, the more expressive I could be. Which maybe is true, but it got to be a bit self-indulgent, I think, and wasn't communicating terribly well..."

Lord states that he felt Park landed on a winning formula with Creature Comforts in terms of being both funny and subtle at the same time. In that respect he is correct. Creature Comforts works precisely because it's such an eye-poppingly weird concept that, by its very nature, never explicitly acknowledges how eye-poppingly weird it is. We have one pygmy hippopotamus commenting upon the overall grottiness of their living conditions while another hippopotamus shamelessly unpacks its bowels before the camera. It's the perfect mix of the sublime, the absurd and the dirtily bestial. And it's poignant too. Many speculate that Park was influenced by Russell Hoban's Turtle Diary (which was adapted into a feature film directed by John Irvin in 1985), in aligning the plight of captive animals with the restricted, highly artificial lifestyles of modern humans in their concrete jungles. Though a family of polar bears speculate that life in the wild would probably be a lot harder than in the zoo, the final word goes to a Brazilian feline, who insists, with barely-concealed desperation, that he plans to relocate to any part of the world with a warmer climate. "Name it, and I'll go." Ultimately, Creature Comforts does leave you feeling quite a bit more unsettled than Going Equipped (not Babylon though!), despite its deceptively more cheerful exterior. Which is not to say that Going Equipped doesn't have a lot going for it also. It is a wonderfully atmospheric piece; the tiny little nuances and painstaking attention to detail that Lord seems so down on are precisely what make it so rich.

Since "Go Chicken" is all about how Park's success revolutionised Aardman, not a whole lot is said about some of the other individual talents who have emerged from the studio over the years - the shorts of Richard Starzak (who created Rex The Runt and went onto helm the Creature Comforts and Shaun the Sheep TV series and movie), Darren Walsh (the creator of Angry Kid) and Steve Box (who would co-direct Curse of The Were-Rabbit with Park) are restricted to a brief montage, although it must be said that these guys took Aardman to some gruesomely demented heights that may prove disorientating to those only familiar with Park's work. Box's short Stage Fright (1997), for example, looks beguilingly like something Park could have put together but is actually a far nastier, more psyche-scarring piece than would ever have Park's thumbprints on (I sometimes wonder if that was Box's sick little joke all along). What Gilliam said earlier about Aardman being cosy and comfortable...nope, not here. I suppose what I'm getting at is that when Gilliam talks about all that simple, calm tea-sipping, he is specifically describing Park's work, as opposed to Aardman as whole. Anyone who owns a copy of the Aardman Classics DVD from 2000 knows what a twisted grab bag of nightmarish delights it is. Aardman are a melting pot of talent, and their output can be sad, serious, vulgar, freakish, quaint, charming - the works. Park landed a formula that seemed to get the best of all possible worlds, the Wallace and Gromit shorts being tremendous hits with the general public while impressing film intelligentsia with their innovative techniques and loving tributes to suspense and action cinema (Leonard Maltin appears briefly in "Go Chicken" to praise The Wrong Trousers for "using every conceivable kind of cinematic storytelling technique.") Somewhere along the line, Park's approach became synonymous with Aardman as a brand. To an extent, this is an inevitable part of Aardman's growth and expansion as a studio - as their projects have become bigger and more complex, they've become a lot more collaborative, more geared toward crowd-pleasing and less the passion projects of individual animators laboring to get their demented visions out on late-night TV.  Still, since Aardman entered the feature film business, I'd argue that they've actually suffered from being too Boxed In by Park's aesthetic.** Of the seven feature films released by Aardman to date, only one - Arthur Christmas (2011) - has a visual style that deviates significantly from that which is Park's signature. The others, even those that Park did not oversee, adhere very closely to his preference for characters with wide mouths and big toothy grins. There is often a drive to replicate Park's brand of cheese-and-crackers whimsy matched with zany action set-pieces. I get the appeal of having a unified look and feel to solidify the sense of an Aardman brand, but I don't think it would hurt the studio to diversify their approach a little, to give their films greater sense of individuality and allow directorial voices that aren't Park's to shine through. You get that with Pixar - Pete Docter's films have a very different tone and texture to Brad Bird's, for example. Disney has its own signature style, and yet they are usually careful to differentiate it according to the needs of each individual feature, eg: the characters in Hercules have a very different visual flavour to the characters in Mulan.

Speaking of Disney, it's acknowledged in "Go Chicken" that they had also been eager to establish a partnership with Aardman, but it hadn't worked out. We all know that there was some serious bad blood between Katzenberg and Michael Eisner when the former went his own way, and that DreamWorks Animation was established with something of an agenda - not merely to challenge Disney's industry dominance, as Bluth had done a decade or so previously, but to really stick it to The Man (or Mouse). Katzenberg wanted to Disney to know that his middle finger was extended and perpetually pointed at them, and had Shrek made just to prove it. Aardman had chosen to back DreamWorks' pony, at least in the short-term, and a bit of that anti-Disney sentiment appears to have wormed its way into "Go Chicken" - the House of Mouse is here brought up very briefly, but the vilification isn't exactly subtle. The specific analogy chosen to describe the failed negotiation tactics of "The Mighty Disney" was that it had "set its sights on swallowing Aardman whole." Sproxton states that Aardman were courted quite heavily by Disney after Park's Oscar success, but Disney's idea of what constituted a relationship had put them off: "We always felt they came in from a kind of, well, guys, you know, we're going to own you. Just sit back, relax and we'll just run the ship. And that's what we wanted to avoid happening." Lord seems more ambivalent on the matter. He admits that the deal Disney were offering was "perfectly respectable" and that a lot of Aardman were not against it, but that in the end, "the chemistry wasn't right." Laurie tells us that DreamWorks had more success because they were able to broker a deal that allowed Aardman to hold onto a greater sense of independence. All the same, the specific clip from The Prince of Egypt selected to accompany this portion of the documentary - an extract from the "Playing With The Big Boys Now" musical sequence - seems both subversive and hilariously prescient, as if the BBC felt that Aardman were being slightly naive in assuming that Katzenberg's studio would treat them any better than would Disney. Yes, it was blatantly intended as a joke, but with hindsight it seems strange to have all this optimism about Aardman being granted the freedom to remain fundamentally Aardman when that plainly wasn't the case. A commonly cited factor in the relationship's relatively speedy breakdown was that Katzenberg was actually quite a bit stingier with creative control than Aardman had hoped. I get the impression that Park did not particularly enjoy the process of making Curse of The Were-Rabbit, if this statement he made while promoting his fourth Wallace and Gromit short, A Matter of Loaf and Death in 2008, is any indication:

 "It's nice to be out of that feature film pressure now. I don't feel like I'm making a film for a kid in some suburb of America - and being told they're not going to understand a joke, or a northern saying...I'm making this for myself again and the people who love Wallace and Gromit."

What made it tougher for Aardman to dig in their heels against this DreamWorksian tyranny was that their films post-Chicken Run struggled to find an audience at the US box office (sadly, this has remained a constant since their departure from DreamWorks). Curse of The Were-Rabbit may have been a smashing success at the Academy Awards, but it failed to turn a profit in terms of tickets sales. Audiences didn't take to Flushed Away, Aardman's first stab at a CG-animated feature - Aardman purists were no doubt alienated by the studio's apparent abandonment of their trademark medium (it must be said that those faux-Park designs didn't look nearly so charming in CG, which is perhaps why Arthur Christmas, their second CG feature, went for a different look altogether), while general audiences presumably figured that Pixar's Ratatouille would clearly be the better film. Still, I suspect that the major factor in terms of DreamWorks and Aardman's strained relationship was the film that we'll never get to see (more on that below). Incidentally, we have heard that Flushed Away was made in CG animation because the extensive amount of water-based action throughout the film would have been too fiddly to render in stop motion. All the same, I recall listening to a radio interview with Lord in 2007, shortly after Aardman had entered into a new deal with Sony, in which he was asked to elaborate more on the areas where Aardman and DreamWorks hadn't seen eye to eye. He disclosed that DreamWorks weren't wild about Aardman's Plasticine devotion, feeling that the future of feature animation lay entirely with CG and that Aardman was merely wasting time with their painstakingly slow claymation process. No more surefire way to rob a studio of its identity than to deprive it of the defining tool of its trade and make it just like everybody else.

For now, Katzenberg seems more willing to feign enthusiasm for claymation, and its place within the future of Hollywood animation:

"They knew from the very beginning what they wanted to do, they knew what story they wanted to tell, how they wanted to tell it and, you know, it was great. And we wanted to do it with them. And as the first movie made in this form of stop motion animation, I think it really is a breakthrough moment, in just sort of the history of film-making. It's a first."

I have to stop you there, Jeff. Was Chicken Run actually the first claymation feature film? I mentioned The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb above, and while that example is debatable, given that the film was a combination of stop motion and pixilation (a process by which live actors are shot frame-by-frame to give them the jerky mannerisms of stop motion figures), Will Vinton's The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985) certainly beat Chicken Run by fifteen years.

I brought up Chicken Run, briefly, when I covered Aardman's Oscar victory at the 78th Academy Awards, and described its tone as "weirdly compromised". Actually, I do think that Chicken Run is a very strong animated feature and has a lot going for it. There are many respects in which it feels really atypical for a major Hollywood-backed animated feature of the time, not least its extensively female-led cast. The protagonist is female, the main antagonist is also female, and the majority of the supporting cast are female. Not bad when you consider that it took Pixar until 2015 to yield a film with a female-majority cast (and 2012 just to have a female lead, period). I suppose I should be upfront that the real sticking point for me would be Mel Gibson's presence, not just because of all the controversy he was poised to stir up a few years down the line, but because he struck me as too self-conscious an attempt to shoehorn in some A List celebrity voice talent in order to better market the film to mainstream audiences. There's something about Gibson's brand of brash, aggressive celebrity that strikes me as being inherently out of place in an Aardman project (even when the character he's playing is meant to be a bit of an obnoxious knob) and more akin to the kind of celebrity cast-whoring that would shortly become one of DreamWorks' trademarks. I can accept that as a necessary evil, however, given that it was Aardman's first film and they needed to win over a much bigger viewership than those who were already familiar with Wallace and Gromit, etc. (Gibson, incidentally, is the only cast member who's interviewed in "Go Chicken". He professes to be a fan of Aardman and to have been eager to work with them.)


Oh blech, I'd forgotten that Harry Knowles was in this. He shows up briefly at the end to express his concern that this might not end well for Aardman, as there was always the potential that they would become to DreamWorks what Pixar are to Disney (that didn't happen, for which I suspect Aardman and DreamWorks both feel quite sore). You might question what the problem would be there, given that Pixar have made many excellent and successful films under Disney, but it's worth keeping in mind that at the time that "Go Chicken" aired, Pixar had only released three feature films, Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2, and it remained to be seen how their own gamble in Playing With The Big Boys would pay off in the long-term. Gilliam is similarly skeptical as to how this will ultimately work out for Aardman, and succinctly articulates the main concern that I suspect a lot of people with knowledge of the animation industry were feeling - "If it's Jeff Katzenberg they're working with, then good luck. Good luck, boys!"

Lord is asked what he thinks the outcome will be if Chicken Run is not a hit. What does he anticipate DreamWorks asking them to do differently? Says Lord: "If a film flops, then I know there'd be pressure to change...they'd say, "never mind being so English and Aardman-ish, give us something commercial." So that's the danger that I am aware of, that obviously encourages us not to flop, basically." "Go Chicken" closes on an optimistic note, in pointing out that Aardman's next animated feature was already slated be a Wallace and Gromit one, so even if audiences don't take to the chickens, for the next round they'll have have familiarity on their side. The final word goes to Katzenberg, who muses that, "They make you care a lot about clay." (Not enough in your case, clearly.)

What "Go Chicken" doesn't explore, in a great deal of depth, is the inception and development of Chicken Run as a feature. We get glimpses of the painstaking production processes that go into making a film of this nature, but there's little about how the characters came to be or what really attracted Park and Lord to telling this particular story. If you're interested in that, then you'd do better to read the official tie-in book Chicken Run: Hatching The Movie, which was written by Brian Sibley and published by Harry N. Abrams in 2000. We learn there, for example, that in earlier versions of the story Ginger had a kid brother named Nobby who was axed at the insistence of Katzenberg, who stipulated that there be no child characters in the film for fear of diminishing its adult appeal (this is entirely consistent with the notes Katzenberg is reported to have left Pixar during the making of Toy Story - apparently, he believed that adults would have an innate aversion to any film with the word "Toy" in the title). But by far the most fascinating nugget of information to be gleaned from this book occurs right in the final pages, when Sibley touches on what the future was set to hold for the boys of Bristol. Aardman's next feature film was to be a Wallace and Gromit movie (they were very upfront about this while promoting Chicken Run, possibly to take the sting off for Wallace and Gromit fans still sour about Aardman's refusal to tip the hat to their signature characters in their very first feature) but Sibley sheds some extremely limited light on an additional feature they had in the works - a feature adaptation of the classic Aesop's fable The Tortoise and The Hare, which never completed the gestation process and wound up languishing in the annals of Aardman history as the studio's first vapor-movie.*** Aardman prefer not to talk about Tortoise Vs Hare, so any little information that we can garner about the project is precious. Here's what's teased in Sibley's book:

"To begin with", says Nick, "we couldn't find a hook for it; we needed an original angle - then we found it." That angle was to recreate the well-known tale in an unexpected, but familiar format: an animated documentary with vox pops that looked back to those early Aardman series, like Conversation Pieces and Lip Sync that won Aardman much praise and - with Creature Comforts - their first Academy Award. (p.186)

The project was also referenced, briefly, in Andy Lane's book Creating Creature Comforts, published by Boxtree in 2003. Lane confirmed that the project had been postponed and indicates that the staff at Aardman were unwilling to open up about it for his writing (p.78).

Despite the early success of Chicken Run, DreamWorks seemed to figure out very quickly that Aardman would not become their Pixar and were keen to cut ties with them. The split was officially announced in early 2007, but rumours of the breakup had begun circulating before Flushed Away was even released. There were a number of probable factors in the relationship meltdown, including the lacklustre box office of Curse of The Were-Rabbit and the rising industry dominance of CG animation at the expense of other forms - the fact is that claymation will always be a slow and costly process, and at the time DreamWorks were gravitating toward a "more is more" strategy of releasing multiple pictures a year (a strategy which wound up hurting them in the long-term). A further factor would have been the troubled production of Tortoise Vs Hare, which was put on hold in 2001 due to script issues, resulting in 90 staff lay-offs, bruised morale at Aardman and who knows how much lost money. Despite early indications that the project would be resumed after a thorough retooling, the Aesopian mockumentary ultimately vanished without a trace.

We don't have a lot to go on where Tortoise Vs Hare is concerned, but my gut instinct tells me that a feature film based on the Creature Comforts format was never likely to work. As hilarious, wonderful and inspired as Creature Comforts is, it's the kind of thing that really needs to be partaken in bite-sized chunks. The original short is five minutes long. For the TV series made for ITV in 2003, episodes were no longer than eight and a half minutes, which is about as long as you could reasonably hope to extend this kind of vox pop spoof before the central gag begins to wear thin. Aardman learned this the hard way in 2007 when they tried their hand at a version of the series made specially for American audiences, Creature Comforts USA, which adhered to a more conventional 22 minute run time per episode and suffered a quick but painful death in the ratings war, being slapped with cancellation after just three episodes (I tried watching Creature Comforts USA; the animation and sight gags are as sharp as anything in the ITV series, but you just get so restless and bored eight minutes in). There's also the problem that Aesop's fables are probably no better suited to prolonged storytelling forms than is Creature Comforts. There's not a whole lot to your typical Aesop's fable, which is part of what makes them so evergreen - they're so short, elegant and to the point, offering little ambiguity when it comes to their obligatory morals. Aesop's fables do not make great foundations for feature films. "But Pixar's A Bug's Life was based on the Aesop's fable of The Grasshopper and The Ant," you might be inclined point out. In response, I would quote Niles Crane - "I believe that's what's called the clincher!"

Which leads me into another question that's been lingering at the back of my mind this entire time - were Aardman ever that well-suited to being contenders in the cutthroat savannah of mainstream Hollywood? We've heard Gilliam argue that their strengths lay with smaller, simpler productions, which would suggest that Aardman were always going to struggle to make the transition and keep all of their trademark charms intact. And yet, where Aardman's forays into feature films have worked, they've typically worked very well. Despite Park's comments on the matter, I personally think that Curse of The Were-Rabbit is a great film, and as faithful to the spirit of Wallace and Gromit as one could realistically hope under the circumstances (for one thing, Sallis was allowed to stay on as the voice of Wallace, which DreamWorks must have had some reservations about, given that he's not exactly a multiplex-filling name). Conventional wisdom would have dictated that the small screen adventures of Shaun the Sheep might have trouble translating to a theatrical format, being as short and devoid of dialogue as they were, and yet The Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015) wound up being their best film in a decade. Aardman have demonstrated that they can tell a larger-scale story and retain their whimsical sense of humour, their witty use of mise-en-scene and their sharp eye for minute character details. Still, Aardman have likewise demonstrated that their approach isn't terribly commercial, at least where US audiences are concerned. What made Chicken Run the one exception? A mere case of beginner's luck, or a testament to the star power of Mel Gibson back in 2000? Is it the case that Aardman's films are simply too quaint, too quirky and, above all, too self-consciously British to resonate with American audiences? Ray Bennett of The Hollywood Reporter suggested as such when he remarked, while reflecting on the US box office prospects of The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (2012), that, "unless there's a key American character in one of their animations - Mel Gibson was the main voice of Chicken Run back in 2000 - I'm not so sure American audiences respond to it, except in niche fashion." (He could be onto something, although a lack of key American characters didn't prevent the recent Peter Rabbit film from doing surprisingly good business at the US box office last year). Perhaps audiences were a bit more open to Aardman's brand of quaint British whimsy back in 2000, then Shrek came along and zeitgeist did not swing in Aardman's favour. I'd also keep in mind that Aardman aren't the only purveyors of stop motion animation in the feature film biz right now - Laika Studios, the modern incarnation of Will Vinton Studios, have a lot in common with Aardman, in that their films have consistently netted praise from critics and animation fans and been regularly nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (in Laika's case invariably, although unlike Aardman they have yet to win even once - such is the dominance of Pixar and Disney in the category), while at the same time never presenting much of a challenge to the major studios in terms of box office grosses - Kubo and The Two Strings (2016) went down like a lead balloon at the box office, despite being Laika's most powerful and accomplished film to date. Tim Burton's stop motion animation films, Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012), likewise didn't exactly set the multiplexes on fire (although in their case the sinister subject matter and Tim Burton brand name might also have been a turn-off for family audiences). Like it or lump it, CG animation still rules the roost in the Hollywood animation; stop motion, by comparison, is much more of a niche market all-round.

Still, I would go back to what I said earlier about Aardman being Boxed In by their need to always cater to the exact same elements - that quaint, quirky cheese-and-crackers Englishness that Park perfected in his early films. As such, I have to question if Aardman have really grown or developed much since Chicken Run in terms of their narrative aesthetic? An important factor in why industry juggernauts Pixar stayed ahead in the game for so long is because at their peak they were able to keep on pushing and challenging themselves, and consistently surprising audiences with the directions in which they were willing to go - for example, the incinerator sequence in Toy Story 3, the first third of Wall-E and the first several minutes of Up (I'd say that the opening portion of Up goes a long way toward single-handedly refuting Scully's ridiculous comments that animation isn't as well-suited to drama as comedy). How many of you would like to see Aardman step out of their comfort zone and do something on a par with that opening sequence from Up? There's an extent to which Aardman seem so wary of their avant garde Channel 4 roots that they come off as almost afraid to be serious. Pirates! especially was wild, zany and nonsensical to the point that it never seemed particularly sincere about anything - the film's big "emotional" sequence was accompanied by "I'm Not Crying" by Flight of The Conchords, for eff's sake. I think, certainly, that Aardman are at the point where they'd benefit from doing something more out of left field. Aardman's most recent feature, Early Man (2018), which was also Park's first directorial stint in years, presented a paradox, in that it was technically something new and at the same time marred by a heavy sense of deja vu. Many viewers noted that Dug the caveman might as well have been a younger, denser Wallace while Hognob the boar was basically Gromit all over again - it felt like Park working squarely within his comfort zone as opposed to bringing anything amazingly fresh to the table. Of all Aardman's features, Early Man felt as if it had benefited the least from being told at feature-length - it is a little, unassuming film, and not in the best of ways. Perhaps the idea would have worked better as one of Aardman's thirty-minute television pieces. Or maybe it was just the wrong film for the wrong time - the film's celebration of a little English tribe endeavoring to preserve its little, English ways in the face of foreign encroachment rings entirely hollow amid the present atmosphere of non-stop Brexit debacle. And yet, such is the immense craftmanship and dedication that goes into the entire claymation process that it's hard not to be endeared by it. You can't watch an Aardman claymation and not marvel at the love, heart and soul manifesting in the visible thumbprints of the people who moved those infernal puppets.

And finally, what of the future for Aardman? A Matter of Loaf and Death was the last Wallace and Gromit film to date. Following the death of Sallis in 2017, who knows if there will be any more? But then again, perhaps Aardman no longer regard Wallace and Gromit as their flagship characters. Shaun the Sheep may well have usurped them as Aardman's superstar, his second big screen outing being set for late 2019 with Farmagaddeon: A Shaun The Sheep Movie. It looks as if Aardman are about to begin digging out the old brand familiarity guns elsewhere - Chicken Run 2 was announced in April 2018, with Flushed Away co-director Sam Fell attached to direct. The original film has been around for just shy of two decades, so perhaps Aardman are also banking on the nostalgia factor, which has proved quite lucrative in Hollywood in recent years, but can also be quite hit-or-miss. They aren't the only ones returning to familiar territory in an effort to win over audiences who may have passed by their more recent output - Aardman's former bedfellows at DreamWorks have been talking about reviving Shrek for some time and are apparently now very serious. Shrek may have revolutionised the Hollywood animation industry back in 2001, but a glut of diminishing returns sequels resulted in it being good as booed out of the arena by 2010. Since then, DreamWorks have discovered what a fickle bunch audiences are, with many of their recent films failing to turn a profit and Illumination recently displacing them as Disney and Pixar's big industry rivals. Will the gambit pay off? Is the world ready to fall in love with fart jokes all over again? Okay, so that is undoubtedly the silliest question I've raised thus far - when did the world ever stop being obsessed with farts?


* Although I can't claim to have gone through every scene in Chicken Run with a fine enough comb to say definitively that he's not there. If you see Feathers, then by all means let me know.
** If you get the pun, then I love you.
*** I specify first because it appears that The Cat Burglars, first announced in 2007, might have vanished down the same alley. Anybody want to fill me in on what happened there?