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Image Entertainment presents
"Any part of the world, but HOT. Name it, and I go."
DVD ReviewImage Entertainment's Creature Comforts DVD presents four short animated films produced at Aardman Animations, the British studio best known for the recent feature film Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit shorts. The DVD includes:
Creature Comforts (1989):
A festival favorite since its debut, this innovative five-and-a-half-minute clay animation short is set in a zoo, where various animals discuss their lives and concerns in captivity. What makes the film so entertaining is its cinéma vérité approach, synching the animation to live, unscripted interviews conducted with ordinary people about zoos, housing, and living conditions in general.
The illusion is seamless and surprisingly magical—a cougar from Brazil complains about the lack of space, a koala expresses his faith that he will be looked after, and a gorilla discusses her hatred of the rain and cold. The character animation is brilliant, with subtle gestures, glances, and pauses for thought that make each and every "interviewee" a living, breathing creature under the direction of Nick Park. Rarely has plasticine appeared so deceptively natural on screen—Creature Comforts is a quietly fantastic achievement that bears repeat viewing, thanks to myriad little touches you won't notice the first time through.
Wat's Pig (1996):
This simple morality tale posits a kingdom whose queen bears twin sons, one of whom is kidnapped and abandoned in a pigsty in an extremely filmic, dramatically lit and photographed opening sequence. Years later, one of the boys has been raised to adulthood by his adoptive pig family, with whom he lives a simple agricultural life, while his long-lost brother has grown up to be King. When the land is invaded by a neighboring Kingdom, events conspire to reunite the brothers. The King sends his brother forth in his place, and an unexpected climax affirms the simple values of the "poor" brother.
The animation isn't as consistently solid as the work seen in Aardman's other shorts, but the visual style of this eleven-minute, largely dialogue-free piece is vital and dramatic, with strong lighting and camera angles, clever use of split-screen and a solid sense of the medieval, courtesy of director Peter Lord.
Not Without My Handbag (1993):
A hilarious tale in an E.C. Comics-meets-Absolutely Fabulous vein, this twelve-minute short film tells the story of a little girl's Aunt who is sent to Hell for failure to keep up her washer payments (per the unexamined terms of her contract with the Dante Corporation). Distorted, forced-perspective, garishly lit set designs lend a joyously spooky feel to the proceedings as Auntie rises from her grave in search of her faithful handbag, with her dress and bouffant orange hairdo intact on her otherwise fleshless skeleton. When Satan disguises himself as the handbag in question to reclaim Auntie's soul, her little niece ("My aunt is a zombie! From Hell!") must find a way to help her rest in peace.
This is the least Aardman-esque short on this disc, directed by Boris Kossmehl with movement and design that frequently call traditional cel animation to mind. Character models are simple and stylized, with fingerless hands, "pipe-cleaner" limbs, and heads sculpted and cast without the malleable "Aardman brow." The animation is kinetic and effective, but the film is carried largely by its colorful, expressionistic design sense—asymmetric doorways and tilted staircases fit the story perfectly.
Director Peter Lord tackles Adam's relationship to his Creator. Adam is placed on the globe by God, then subjected to all manner of abuse—divinely ordained and self-inflicted—before he finds a greater happiness, all in the space of about six minutes.
The character animation is the big attraction here—Adam is a simple (though obviously male) clay figure, and the Creator appears only in the form of a pixelated human arm and hand. But the business derived from Adam's relationship to God and his simple environment (a round Earth that can be traversed in seconds) is inventive, and Adam's reactions, emotions and thought processes are comically clear.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: Image's DVD presents the title attraction, Creature Comforts, in its original 1.85:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio with a competent anamorphic transfer, mastered from film at 24 frames-per-second. The film's lighting is a bit inconsistent, changing slightly from frame to frame, but the digital transfer handles this issue, as well as a rather high level of film grain, with zest and aplomb. Color seems a bit faded, and the source print has a few dirt flecks, but the widescreen transfer looks crisper and more detailed than any festival showing I've seen.
The other three shorts are presented in 1.33:1 full-frame (Wat's Pig is letterboxed to 1.66:1 within the 1.33:1 frame) taken from a 30-fps interlaced video master with 3:2 pulldown. Detail and color are fairly solid, though there's some smeariness in blue-dominated shots in Not Without My Handbag and Adam; the latter also suffers from digital blocking and instability in the background. Source prints are fairly clean and edge enhancement is minimal, but some film-to-video-to-DVD degradation and compression difficulties are apparent, despite the presumably generous bit-budget available on this half-hour disc. It appears more care was taken with the classic Creature Comforts, despite its being the oldest of the four shorts included here, and the other films suffer by comparison.
As a point of reference, I compared this DVD to the recent Aardman/Dreamworks Chicken Run disc, which was drawn from a digital master, stored frame-by-frame from 35mm film during production to facilitate editing, compositing and CGI effects. The stellar, nearly-all-digital transfer of Chicken Run puts this disc to shame; the big-budget feature obviously benefited from DVD production forethought and a larger physical scale (thumbprints on models, camera jogs and other small animation errors are much less visible than they are here). Against that standard, Image's Creature Comforts still looks pretty good; the main attraction looks fine, if not pristine, and the video-mastered material is certainly watchable.
Image Transfer Grade: C+
Audio Transfer Review: Image's DVD retains each short's original audio format: Creature Comforts is in Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic, ProLogic-decoded to the center speaker; Adam is in 2.0 stereo; and Not Without My Handbag and Wat's Pig are in Dolby 2.0 Surround. The live interview audio on Creature Comforts is intentionally hissy with background noise; the others sound "studio clean," with solid frequency range and particularly nice low-end bass and rear surround effects on Not Without My Handbag. The digital transfers are obviously drawn from analog audio sources, with some muddiness here and there, but there are no major flaws in the presentation.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu
Scene Access with 4 cues and remote access
Extras Review: Unfortunately, Image Entertainment's Creature Comforts collection includes no supplements whatsoever, though the full-motion title menu is nicely done. Peter Lord and Nick Park have in the past shown themselves willing to discuss their work at length, and it's a pity no commentaries, storyboards or other informative extras were rounded up for this DVD. Perhaps we've been spoiled by ever-more-deluxe DVD editions from Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks; in any event, animation junkies will have to seek their behind-the-scenes data elsewhere. (I heartily recommend Peter Lord's comprehensive book Creating 3-D Animation: The Aardman Book of Filmmaking, which goes into quite a bit of detail on Aardman's history and techniques of dimensional animation.)
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsCreature Comforts is a collection of four short animated films produced by Aardman Animations; the title attraction is an all-time classic, and the additional shorts are worthwhile, especially Not Without My Handbag. Image's DVD features solid video and audio given the quality of the available sources, and the disc's low retail price makes it a must-buy for animation fans. Parents should note that (unlike Aardman's Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit shorts) this material may not be entirely suitable for young children, due to some borderline-PG scary moments and clay nudity.
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