Aardman animations: a British institution. Yes, the filmmaking company behind Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, Creature Comforts and Shaun the Sheep are a national treasure, using UK archetypes and techniques from their long-standing home in Bristol to create wonderful Claymation worlds that have enchanted our nation for decades.
Yep, they’re about as British as tea, slippers by the fire and Peter Sallis – so upon learning I was going to check out an exhibition all about Aardman, I couldn’t wait to see where I was going. The obvious place would be at the company’s home in Bristol, but perhaps the show had migrated to London, or Birmingham? Or maybe further north, the spiritual home of Yorkshire-influenced Wallace, eh lad?
But no – my destination was Paris. I mean, we should have expected it really – Wallace’s love of cheese was bound to find some empathy amongst the French – but as I entered the Musée Art Ludique on the banks of the Seine I couldn’t help but wonder whether the lo-fi charm of Aardman could survive its swim across the channel. Mostly, I have to say it has – with one or two exceptions, which I’ll get to later.
Overall, the exhibition is intensely interesting – hundreds of preliminary sketches reveal the minute detail that went into every feature of every character Aardman has ever created, revealing the development of characters into the forms we know today (see Gromit, above) – but it’s the models that really impress, and remind you of why the company has such a place in people’s hearts.
Exhibits include a step-by-step demonstration of how they created the titular bunny from Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit, the cast of Chicken Run, a scene from the recent Shaun the Sheep movie and a basic set for plasticine men Morph and Chaz. But it’s the surprisingly huge ship (below) from The Pirates: In an Adventure with Scientists that has the most impressive display, the model covered with tiny sight gags that almost certainly went unnoticed on screen – the level of detail and effort is astounding.
The exhibition is also littered with interesting trivia, like the fact that Aardman use their own special clay from a secret recipe (called Aard-mix, name fans), or that the cost of renovating one of Wallace and Gromit’s model vans (which was damaged during filming) would cost around £10,000 – more than the cost of an actual van.
So generally, it’s all great fun – but what about those exceptions, I hear you ask? Well, in my mind the one sour note comes from the interpretation of some of the exhibits by the museum, singing the company’s praises with a layer of po-faced pretension at odds with Aardman’s grounded and playful style (one wall description even compares the company with English artists John Constable and JMW Turner).
These oddly overbearing and humourless descriptions, along with an audio guide narrated by what genuinely sounded like a parody of a French accent in true ‘Allo ‘Allo style (“Thee sees Shawwn de Sherrrp in ‘is film of de sam nerm”) rang false to me – really, the models and films (a few of which played on a loop) should have been allowed to speak for themselves, not be taken as artistic expressions of British sculpture.
To me, it seemed like applying literary theory to The Very Hungry Caterpillar – taking something fun and imaginative far too seriously, when the magic and charm of the original can be experienced without deep analysis. Come on, France – can’t a penguin stealing robotic trousers just be taken at face value? Zut alors.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch the Curse of the Were-Rabbit for the umpteenth time – dubbed en francais, of course. Maybe the French version holds a deeper artistic meaning that we’ve been missing out on – but at the very least, I’ll get to hear Wallace say “Bonne fromage, Gromit!”
Shaun the Sheep the Movie is out on DVD and Blu ray on 1st June