Aardman is another exception to the only U.S. studios rule I made for this list. Aardman got its start in 1972, founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, who wanted to realize their dream of producing an animated motion picture. The small company would provide animation for TV shows and TV title sequences. In the late 80’s the studio found success with their mockumentary, Creature Comforts, which ended up winning an Oscar. The animation was done in the traditional style for Aardman, stop motion clay animation. Nick Park would be their most important asset, as he created many of their landmark characters, including Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. Park directed and created several Wallace and Gromit shorts in the late 80’s through the mid-90’s with two winning Oscars. In 1997, the company drew the attention of Dreamworks, and the companies teamed up to co-finance and distribute Aardman’s first feature length film, Chicken Run.
Chicken Run had been in the works for a year before Dreamworks came on, and many studios, including Disney, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros. were interested in being part of the production to help enhance their presence in animation. Dreamworks won out and co-financed and distributed, but retained rights to worldwide merchandising. The film, like all stop-motion films, took forever to make and the movie wouldn’t be released until June 2000. Lucky for both Aardman and Dreamworks, the movie was a smash hit, grossing $225 million against a small budget of $45 million. Chicken Run is still Aardman’s highest grossing film to this day. Reviews were stellar for the movie, with many comparing it favorably to Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit shorts. Dreamworks signed on to help distribute four additional films for Aardman, and things seemed to be going rather well.
Dreamworks and Aardman’s next collaboration was Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Based on their popular characters, the film deals with the inventor and his beleaguered dog trying to stop a mutant rabbit from terrorizing their town. Being a much more British production than Chicken Run, the dialogue had to be toned down so American audiences could understand what was being said. Dreamworks had notes about certain dialogue or lines that drove Park and the others at Aardman crazy. Dreamworks was mainly concerned with making the film easily digestible by American audiences. Like Chicken Run, the film did very well in theaters, grossing slightly less than Chicken Run, but also receiving universal acclaim. Wallace and Gromit became the first stop-motion film to win Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, and remains the only one. Aardman’s next film with Dreamworks, Flushed Away, would be the last of the partnership. Realizing that the film would be near impossible to make in stop-motion due to the amount of water that would be needed to created, they opted for doing Flushed Away completely in CG. Were-Rabbit had not been as big of a smash that Dreamworks had hoped, so they continued to bother Aardman during the production of Flushed Away. This, along with what would end up being a disappointing return at the box office, led to the dissolvement of the Dreamworks/Aardman team-up. Flushed Away, being a CG film and not stop-motion, made the budge 3-4 times as much as any of their previous endeavors, which didn’t help matters. The movie ended up grossing $178 million against a budget of $149 million. Dreamworks lost around $109 million due to the under-performance. The movie was also not as critically well-received as their last two films, but it still wasn’t bad. A future film that Aardman had been starting work on in 2005 was called Crood Awakening. When they dissolved their relationship with Dreamworks, Dreamworks retained the rights, and it would eventually be released as The Croods in 2013.
Aardman then entered into a contract with Sony Pictures Animation, one that ended up lasting just two films. Their first film with Sony as distributor was 2011’s Arthur Christmas. I had originally overlooked this film due to it 1) a holiday movie and 2) looking like the usual animated fare that was coming out. I was pleasantly surprised by the film and you should give it a look around the holidays. I recommend all the other Aardman films, of course, but this one just surprised me. Arthur Christmas ended being a co-production between Aardman and Sony ImageWorks, an animation company that I’ll speak about in another post. This was another CG film for Aardman, but this was their first 3D film. While critical reception was on par with Chicken Run and Were-Rabbit, the box office returns weren’t in the same ballpark. The film made $147 million against a $100 million budget, marking a loss for both companies. The company’s next collaboration was 2012’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, or The Pirates! Band of Misfits in the U.S. Aardman decided it was time to go back to stop-motion, but still made it a 3D film. Despite a small controversy dealing with the mention of leprosy in one of the trailers, the film did rather well at the box office, grossing $123 million against a $55 million budget. While reviews were not as stellar as Arthur Christmas, critics generally enjoyed the British pirate comedy. Sony Pictures Animation, not satisfied with the returns from Aardman’s two films, dissolved their agreement.
Aardman’s latest film to be released was 2015’s stop-motion movie Shaun the Sheep, based on Nick Park’s character. Shaun the Sheep was originally a side character in Wallace and Gromit shorts, but was eventually given his own TV show in 2007. The how has run for five series and continues to this day. French product company StudioCanal and Aardman came to an agreement, and they have agreed to distribute at least the next two Aardman movies. The movie did relatively well at the box office, though it only grossed a few million more in Britain than in the U.S. The film is the highest rated of all Aardman’s films, with a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. It did well enough that Aardman is already working on a sequel to it. Their other film that is in production is called Early Man, and will center on two cavemen trying to save their village. Aardman, along with Pixar and Laika, have an amazing track record and consistently come out with hit after hit. I don’t see them going anywhere anytime soon.