With the time-intensive nature of stop-motion animation, a new feature film from Aardman Animations is always a precious thing. As Farmageddon: A Shaun The Sheep Movie arrives in cinemas this month, we find ourselves once again flabbergasted by the consistency of the feature films produced by the maestros who brought us Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run.
Founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton in 1972, Aardman first produced animated segments on the BBC’s Vision On and Take Hart programmes, where characters like Morph and Chas quickly became popular. With other talented animators such as Nick Park, Steve Box, and Richard Starzak later joining the studio’s blooming creative trust, Aardman’s early work famously ranged from the music video for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’ to the Oscar-winning short film Creature Comforts.
Park’s acclaimed short film also beat his first Wallace & Gromit short, 1989’s A Grand Day Out, to the Academy Award, but the sequels, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, both won in the same category. This success drew an array of bids for feature funding from Hollywood studios throughout the 1990s. It was producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks Animation who successfully courted Aardman for their first feature, Chicken Run, which was directed by Lord and Park and released in 2000.
Up to and including Farmageddon, the studio has made five more stop-motion features in the past two decades, plus two CG-animated features with other studios. Relatively speaking, considering the time and effort that goes into making them, the studio has somewhat ramped up its feature production in recent years, with a long-awaited Chicken Run sequel next on their slate.
Still, it’s been a long and winding road for Aardman to get to this point, traversing various distribution deals and even leaving a couple of projects unrealised along the way. With Lord in place as a creative leader, their output has been resolutely British, with a sense of humour and storytelling as distinctive as the fingerprints that are sometimes visible on their characters’ faces.
Admirably, Lord and Sproxton recently transferred majority ownership of the company to its employees, further underlining its independence in comparison with the bigger animation studios over the pond. But having long since established its uniqueness in the animated feature market, how did Aardman get here and where might its future films come from?
Slow and steady
Although Chicken Run 2 is currently in development, Lord and Park didn’t yet have another story they wanted to tell when Katzenberg first suggested making a direct sequel to their hugely successful “Great Escape with chickens” debut. Instead, they embarked on what proved to be a difficult second feature, titled Tortoise Vs Hare.
Spoofing underdog sports movies, Chicken Run scribe Karey Kirkpatrick had come up with a take on Aesop’s famous fable, in which a tortoise called Morris demands a race with a hare called Harry. Shot as a Creature Comforts-style mockumentary, the film would have featured the voice talents of Michael Caine and Paul Whitehouse in the lead roles, with Bob Hoskins and Brenda Blethyn set to take supporting roles.
As detailed in the company’s excellent autobiography, Aardman: An Epic Journey, Taken One Frame At A Time, the production ran into story difficulties shortly after production began. To Lord and Sproxton’s deep regret, the script wasn’t where it needed to be when they started production, forcing them to postpone the film indefinitely in 2002.
Despite this blow, the studio bounced back in 2005 with Wallace and Gromit’s massively acclaimed first feature film, The Curse Of The Wererabbit. However, relationships with DreamWorks soured slightly after Katzenberg made the snap decision to produce Flushed Away, their next planned collaboration, as a CG-animated feature instead, so that it could beat Pixar’s Ratatouille into cinemas.
While the finished film isn’t bad, by any means, this move decentralised creative control from Bristol to Hollywood, which didn’t sit well with Aardman. When Flushed Away underperformed next to DreamWorks’ lofty expectations, the two animation studios parted ways on friendly terms. In the process, Aardman kept hold of the rights to their characters, while DreamWorks retained custody of a previously announced project called Crood Awakening, which eventually evolved into 2013’s The Croods.
As originally written by John Cleese and Kirk DeMicco, Crood Awakening would have seen two lively Stone Age characters, a caveman and an inventor, go on an adventure together. DeMicco continued to develop the film at DreamWorks with the family element of the story coming in later on. Nick Park would eventually make his own caveman film at Aardman in the shape of 2018’s Early Man, which also seemed to scratch that earlier sports movie itch in the process.
Adventures with Sony
Sealed just two months after breaking up with DreamWorks, Aardman’s next deal with a big Hollywood studio came through their work with the then-fledgling Sony Pictures Animation. In 2007, the two studios announced a slate including Operation Rudolph (which became 2011’s Arthur Christmas) and The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists, as well as a “family-friendly Tarantino” heist caper called The Cat Burglars, and the then-untitled Early Man.
The two that were produced are Aardman films through and through, but this distribution deal also came to an end after they underwhelmed at the box office. At the UK box office, Aardman films enjoy something of a home advantage, but as was true of many of Sony’s bigger missteps during this period, neither film’s release was especially well handled in terms of marketing and release.
In November 2011, Arthur Christmas held its own at the US box office against juggernauts like The Muppets and the final Twilight movie but didn’t have the room to stretch its legs over the festive period. Early in 2012, The Pirates! was blandly retitled as Band Of Misfits for US audiences, and despite bagging rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Picture, it wasn’t a big enough hit to kickstart the franchise that both studios had hoped for.
In Aardman’s autobiography, Lord laments that they never got to make their planned Pirates! sequel, having got as far as designing a poster concept for the Western-flavoured follow-up, titled The Pirates! In An Adventure With Cowboys! Happily, wider audiences have since discovered both Arthur and Pirates on home media and television.
The Shaun The Sheep movies and Early Man have subsequently been produced through Aardman’s current distribution deal with StudioCanal, but The Cat Burglars, which was set for Wererabbit co-director Steve Box to helm, remains an as-yet unrealised feature from that 2007 slate.
With a script from Life On Mars writers Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh, the caper promised lashings of both QT and Ocean’s Eleven, as a gang of cats rob the contents of a milk float. While Box has since moved on to helm the new Moomins series, this one might still resurface somewhere along the line.
With any other studio, you might think that the worldwide success of the Shaun The Sheep TV series and its film spin-off makes a sequel like Farmageddon inevitable. Anyone who saw and loved the first film is going to be chomping at the bit for more silent comedy shenanigans when the sequel arrives, but Aardman is far too creatively driven to ever just make more of the same.
In the case of Farmageddon, the alien invasion conceit grants the filmmakers the chance to put their characters in yet another big-screen genre playground, bringing in oodles of sci-fi references to delight families and animation buffs alike.
On the other hand, we don’t know much about Chicken Run 2 yet, which may be why it still seems like a slightly more surprising prospect. While Gideon Defoe’s books would have provided ample material for Pirates! follow-ups, it’s as yet unclear what further Chicken Run adventures will look like. Perhaps jokingly, Lord has suggested the posters will say “This time, they’re breaking in”, but whatever the plot may be, they’ve had some new ideas since they first declined Katzenberg’s sequel suggestion.
To put it in context, a gap of more than 20 years between instalments is even longer than the decade-long intervals between Toy Story sequels. Aardman started making features later than Pixar, but it’s unclear if these two successive feature-length sequels, the studio’s first and second respectively, represents the studio adopting Pixar’s more recent sequels-to-originals ratio.
Realistically speaking, stop-motion animation takes too much hard work for the studio to just turn films out for financial reasons, especially when they have form for CG animation in the shape of Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas.
Indeed, Lord remains open to making further CG films, where the creative work would be completed in-house in Bristol and then outsourced to a computer animation studio. Both stop-motion and CG animated films take around four or five years to complete, so they must still be passionate about the more physically labour-intensive process.
While there’s no confirmed release date for the Chicken Run sequel, it was only announced in 2018, so it’ll be a while before we see it in cinemas (although it’s likely Aardman is eyeing 2022, its 50th anniversary year, as the target date). But if nothing else, the lack of confirmed release dates for their films, which are especially changeable for animated features, suggests that after all this time, they’re able to wait until Chicken Run 2 is ready before serving.
Wallace & Gromit in…
Finally, we come to the studio’s most iconic characters. As ever, rumours of further Wallace & Gromit adventures abound in the press and elsewhere. Following The Curse Of The Wererabbit and 2008’s hugely popular TV special A Matter Of Loaf And Death, the dog-and-his-man duo have largely been seen in other media, including a Telltale Games series and new segments created for the Musical Marvels world tour.
While the passing of the late, great Peter Sallis was reported in some quarters as if it was the end of Wallace & Gromit, you may be unaware that Sallis’ final performance as Wallace before retiring was in the 2010 BBC documentary series, Wallace & Gromit’s World Of Invention. For subsequent outings, actor Ben Whitehead has provided the daft inventor’s recognisable voice and he would presumably reprise the role in any future films.
Speaking about the studio’s future, Aardman’s head of rights and brand development Sean Clarke said: “We don’t want to be known just as the creators of Wallace & Gromit […] We need to develop new properties and nurture creative talent to build our portfolio of brands, alongside those that exist.”
As of May 2019, Nick Park isn’t ruling out further features with his most beloved characters, but has admitted that shorts and half-hour escapades are easier and faster to complete. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he hinted that there may be another film in development already. “I feel I’m onto a good idea,” he said, “and I can’t give too much away because it would spoil it really, but it’s Wallace and Gromit up to their old antics.”
The fact that we haven’t seen a new Wallace & Gromit film, feature-length or otherwise, since A Matter Of Loaf & Death testifies to the inherent quality control that comes with Aardman protecting its characters. If we do start to see more of Shaun the Sheep, Ginger and Rocky, and even Wallace and Gromit, rather than originals like Early Man or the as-yet unmade Cat Burglars, it won’t just be for the sake of making more.
As much as it feels like we always need more from Aardman Animations, its rare ‘national treasure’ status comes from being virtually the only studio whose standards you can trust implicitly. With their immaculate track record, it’s impossible not to look forward to whatever Bristol’s finest filmmakers come out with next.