The animation market may be increasingly crowded, but Aardman's Peter Lord won over the San Diego crowd with Arthur Christmas and The Pirates! Band of Misfits
The good ship animation has an increasingly crowded deck, but Britain's Aardman Animation have always cut their own swathe through the genre's murky waters. Despite appearing in the convention's enormous Hall H space on the same day as the new Twilight film, it was rather heartening to see the studio's two new films pick up a rapturous reception from the crowd at Comic-Con in San Diego yesterday. They like their Brits over here in California: Andy Serkis is greeted like a rock star when he arrives on stage to present Rise of the Planet of the Apes a little later on, and Aardman's Peter Lord is treated by the 6,500 gathered delegates with hushed awe, like an unexpected but welcome visitor from a far-off planet.
Aardman's first movie here is Lord's own The Pirates! Band of Misfits – also titled The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists – which looks like a wonderful scurvy seadog romp. Aardman movies always have an old-fashioned, quirkily conservative air about them, as if shot by your cracked uncle Bertie; the footage Lord showed us suggests that Pirates might have been filmed by Bertie's punky younger brother. Maybe it's the Clash and Sex Pistols soundtrack, but this one seems altogether more anarchic than the studio's older movies. The amusing stuff is all knockabout one-liners and campy cut-throat silliness: imagine a Monty Python sketch about a motley crew of corsairs, set to stop motion animation and you'll be in the right ball park. The voice cast is top-notch: Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Brian Blessed, Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton (as a pirate-hating Queen Victoria) are joined by the excellent Jeremy Piven from HBO show Entourage, Salma Hayek, David Tennant from Dr Who and even Russell Tovey from Being Human.
"We looked back at the great pirate movies of the past – the classic era – and then we just had ridiculous fun with the whole thing," Lord tells us. "It's not like a conventional pirate movie. It's a bit out there." Throw in pirate-y encounters with nudists, lepers, Charles Darwin and even a gang of schoolchildren, none of whom seem capable of surrendering the booty required to win the Pirate Captain (he doesn't appear to have a first name) the pirate of the year award, and you're hopefully starting to get an idea of this one's sense of rapid-fire, throwaway naughtiness. Some might suggest that Aardman are being more than a little opportunistic, given the ongoing success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, yet The Pirates! Band of Misfits looks a whole lot more fun than the last three movies in that series combined.
For the animation studio's second film, Lord introduced Arthur Christmas, an all-CGI affair from Borat and Alan Partridge writer Peter Baynham, who turned up to put us in the picture. The footage rather reminded me of Monsters Inc and Despicable Me, with a healthy dose of Mission: Impossible. In Aardman's conceit, Santa's Christmas duties are a complex affair powered by a gigantic, elf-led industrial-military-complex-cum-secret-service operation. "We've really done all the maths and we've worked out exactly how Christmas operates," says Baynham. "I got the idea for Arthur Christmas about six years ago, just due to that simple nagging question of: how does Santa do it?"
The scene we were shown was a dramatic episode in which bumbling Santa (Jim Broadbent) has to be rescued after almost waking a small French child during his duties (spotting the Monsters Inc parallel?). In charge of cleaning up the mess is Santa's son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), an alpha-male military type who presides over a crack team of 25,000 elves at Christmas mission control. If you're wondering who Arthur is, he's another member of the festive family (played by James McAvoy), described as a "massive Christmas nerd who's the one person in the world that loves putting on his Christmas jumper – he's the festive version of those guys walking round here in Darth Vader outfits". Bill Nighy plays the villain of the piece, Santa's curmudgeonly dad Grandsanta, a mischievous old git who reckons the whole Christmas show was much better run in his day.
Festive films are always a challenge, and I'm struggling to think of a great Father Christmas movie that truly appeals to kids and adults alike, but there appears to be more quality and depth to Aardman's effort than the usual gooey Hollywood equivalent. The elves are a little like the Minions from Despicable Me, and that Monsters Inc comparison is going nowhere fast, but Arthur Christmas may well still rise to the top of its respective tree.
The fact that Aardman came, saw and conquered Comic-Con purely on the basis of great footage – by the way – speaks volumes. Without employing any of the usual tricks for attracting an audience and keeping them, Lord and Baynham had the auditorium spellbound. Some of these movies trot out their entire casts in an effort to make a splash, yet Aardman were clearly confident enough in their product to let the movies do the talking. All together now: "Aaaaar!" and … erm … "Happy Christmas!"
Peter Lord of
Aardman StudiosOkay. This comes to you from - well I don’t know where I am, actually - I’m up in the sky, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. There’s clouds outside, that’s all I can tell you.
I’m flying to Mexico, and then later to LA. It’s all part of the mysterious and difficult business of promoting a film.
Which presupposes a film; and that’s what I’m here to blog about. I’m directing Aardman’s latest stop-motion film. Obviously at this exact moment I’m not physically directing it, being on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic, but for the last half decade it’s been my project, my obsession, my albatross and my darling.
So, first things first. The film is called “The PIRATES!” – that much is certain. In the UK it has the subtitle “…In An Adventure With Scientists” while in America and much of the rest of the world it’s subtitled “Band Of Misfits”. Two titles, one film. But the important bit, the bit that won’t change - cling on to this - is “The PIRATES!”.
When I mentioned our latest stop-motion film I specified the technique because we’re actively producing two animated films at almost the same time. As well as my project, The Pirates! Sarah Smith is directing Arthur Christmas, a fully CG animated film, which is being made mostly in LA. Making two films simultaneously, I can officially tell you, is incredibly ambitious – possibly bonkers. Nothing like it has ever been done in Britain before.
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists all started with the book of that name by a monstrously talented young author called Gideon Defoe. It’s short, it’s mischievous, it’s absurd and it’s hilariously funny. When I read books it seldom occurs to me to adapt them into films – my mind doesn’t work that way, but with the Pirates it was different. I was instantly charmed, quickly decided there was a film in there, and then quicker still to nab it for myself.
That was a very long time ago. I’m going to say four and a half years – it’s probably longer. The fact is that when The PIRATES! finally gets to a multiplex near you it’ll be over five years in the making.
Please don’t feel sorry for me. This is perfectly normal. It really is. Most animated movies take at least five years from beginning to end. A few are made quicker, many take much longer, and many a live-action movie takes just as long. So it may be ridiculous. But at least it’s normally ridiculous.
The creation of a movie at Aardman starts with two or three people in a room, drinking tea and chucking ideas around. It peaks four and a half years later with 350 or more people, working as hard and as fast as they can – long hours, weekends, a fair amount of stress – every person and every fibre of their creative energy focused on bringing it to the Big Screen.
This is going to be what you might call a classic Aardman film – I mean it’s stop-motion, puppet animation – call it what you will. It’s a traditional technique that’s been around for a century now, but we’re doing very new and delightful things with it. I hope you’ll manage to look at some of the ‘making of’ material that we’re doing – certainly I’ve been tweeting some glimpses behind the scenes - because the way the film is made, the artistry and the craft, is really very special and spectacular.
Well there’s so much to say. This is only the smallest of starts. But as the cabin crew are wielding scones and tea, I’ll sign off for now.