In the same way that we look to France for fashion and Japan for electronics, we look to England for coziness. That’s at least in part due to Bristol-based Aardman Animations, the 46-year-old studio best known for its “Wallace & Gromit” franchise. With Aardman’s latest release “Early Man” hitting theaters, let’s revisit the studio’s feature-length output, from worst to best.
7. "Early Man" (2018)
“Early Man” is the closest Aardman has come to making a “bad” movie. This romp about the origins of soccer at the dawn of the Bronze Age is hardly shoddy, but there’s a definite whiff of second-rateness in the film’s predictable plotting, lazy puns and ceaseless slapstick. Aardman’s lesser works can rightly be accused of weightlessness, and “Early Man” fits the bill: A week after my screening, I forgot I saw it.
6. "Shaun the Sheep Movie" (2015)
Based on the popular “Wallace & Gromit” spin-off series, the imaginatively titled “Shaun the Sheep Movie” feels similarly inconsequential story-wise to "Early Man," but miles ahead in terms of ambition. The premise of a bored farm animal running away to experience the excitement of the big city is practically a children’s movie cliché, but this charming effort deserves respect for its wordless script and daring humility. By illustrating that cartoons for the masses need not involve endless mugging and patience-testing obnoxiousness, Aardman received its third Oscar nom for Best Animated Feature.
5. "Flushed Away" (2006)
DreamWorks sends Aardman’s soul to The Sunken Place in this collaboration between the two studios. Set in the sewers (where we’re treated to the sight of a half-wrapped chocolate bar that looks like an all-too-realistic poo), “Flushed Away” revels in, well, toilet humor. And yet, I’d still rank this all-CG picture high: The story of a posh pet rat who doesn’t realize how lonely he is until he’s been banished to rodent-infested sewers is surprisingly fresh and resonant.
4. "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" (2005)
Welcome to the splitting-hairs phase of this ranking. The remaining four Aardman features are all superlative, so it’s only after much quibbling and parsing that the “Wallace & Gromit” movie, which boasts the studio’s sole Oscar win for Best Animated Feature, lands on this list at No. 4. Aardman’s famous claymation has never looked better -- the entire picture is invitingly tactile -- and “Curse of the Were-Rabbit” showcases the studio’s secret weapon: a willingness to go dark, even a little dirty. But one nitpick persists -- the story of a dotty inventor who accidentally turns himself into a monster and the canine sidekick who has to clean up all his messes, no matter how delightfully executed, is still a bit familiar.
Sony Pictures Animation
3. "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" (2012)
Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria and a floundering buccaneer who goes by “Pirate Captain” tussle over the world’s only dodo in “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.” After “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” this stop-motion–CG hybrid is the best showcase of Aardman’s brilliantly textural animation style. Just as winsome is the plot, based on the first book of Gideon Defoe’s “The Pirates!” series, which sends up pirate tropes while offering a modern revision of the British empire.
Sony Pictures Animation
2. "Arthur Christmas" (2011)
How is “Arthur Christmas” not a bigger deal? The only Aardman feature directed by a woman (Sarah Smith) is a forgotten masterpiece with a completely new take on the Santa story. Set against technological changes in the dynastic gift-distribution business, “Arthur Christmas” achieves that seemingly impossible balance between Yuletide sentimentality and pointed satire.
1. "Chicken Run" (2000)
What other film could top a list of Aardman’s achievements? The studio’s debut feature is still its best, a silly but scary "Handmaid’s Tale"-evoking fable about hens forced to lay (eggs) or die. The chickens imagine a new future -- a farmer-less utopia -- but first, they have to escape their pen. Aardman’s magnum opus is cozy and endearing -- but also a sometimes truly ominous rebuke of American animation flash.