Appellate Judge James A. Stewart sees that "The Great British Public" is going to the dogs ... and cats ... and octopi ... and slugs ... and so on, thanks to Aardman Animation.
"People don't say what they mean to say, but you understand what they mean."—Executive Producer David Sproxton
The original "Creature Comforts" was a 1990 animated short that won an Oscar in its category and put the plasticine animation of Nick Park and Aardman Animation (A Close Shave, Chicken Run) on the map. It was a series of animated conversations that put the words of human interview subjects into the mouths of zoo animals. Aardman returned to Creature Comforts for a 2003 series of ITV shorts (just shy of 10 minutes apiece), featuring the voices of "The Great British Public." The 13 episodes are:
• "The Circus"
I found that the chuckles picked up as the series progressed, with the best episodes coming toward the end. That might be because this series relies on real conversation popping up in absurd ways, and the unusual rhythm is a surprise. Still, it's hilarious to see a cockroach explaining that "It's good to work because you get dignity from it," or see lab rats in a maze talking about how "You're your own boss…It's a very social atmosphere in many labs" (from "Working Animals").
My favorites on here included "Working Animals," "Feeding Time" (in which a shark confesses, "I hate seafood"), "The Pet Shop" (with a dog trash-talking stick insects: "Stick insects are the most stupid creatures in the world. I mean, look at me pretending to be a log. Isn't that clever?"), "What's It All About?" (with a dog going through rubbish as he says, "I've got as far as I'd like to be evolved as I am at the moment…at the moment"), "Is Anyone Out There?" (in which Captain Cuddlepuss the lazy cat says, "So basically if it's a bird you don't recognize…that was a UFO, isn't it?"), "Cats or Dogs?" (in which a flea says, "I've got a foot in both camps"), and "Merry Christmas" (with a bird looking wistfully in at the holiday spread). The animators go a little bit beyond their mission in "Is Anyone Out There?," which features aliens in suburbia, and "Merry Christmas," which gives lines to a Christmas tree, but the effect, once you're used to it, is hilarious.
Since the words coming out of animals' mouths create a droll humor, they're supplemented by sight gags, such as monkeys typing, or the sun coming at a dinosaur really fast as he says, "It's noticeable that we don't get cold winters anymore. They're just wet. So, um, we might—um, we might survive another millennium."
Context obviously takes a Brighton holiday in Creature Comforts. Thus, you get birds talking about fear of flying, and a turkey at Christmas season saying, "I do feel I'm being pulled in all directions. They're all going to get a piece of me." And this comment from a pet shop iguana obviously came from talk about the singles scene: "It's awful to think that we're sitting here waiting for somebody to pluck us out of—out of the air, and take us home, and keep us forever….But at the same time, I'm never brave enough to go and make the first move and go up to somebody and say: 'Right, you, how about takin' me home and lookin' after me, and lovin' me and cherishin' me?' " The aim here is thoughtful humor that makes people think about everyday life, not to mention some big questions: Are we friendly enough to immigrants or newcomers to our community? Why does flying make us nervous? What is the meaning of life? The Aardman team succeeded well enough to draw an average of 8 million viewers an episode in England, take home a Rose d'Or and a BAFTA award for best comedy, and nab an order for a second season, not to mention an eventual Comedy Central screening stateside.
What do the subjects think about being portrayed as birds, insects, dogs, and cats? Director Richard "Golly" Goleszowski told The Age, an Australian newspaper, that it makes it harder to get good material, but not because potential subjects beg off: "People know what we're doing. If they play up to the microphone, you can hear it's false, that they're not being themselves. As soon as it sounds like a performance, you know it's not going to work as well." Of his show's humorously angst-filled portrait of Great Britain, he says: "People here have a slightly gloomy and dour nature. It's all to do with the short days and long nights, generally drinking too much, but we're also self-effacing and funny."
If you're still a little baffled by Creature Comforts, the extras should help. "Bringing Creature Comforts to Life" shows the animators gesturing to the words, side by side with the animated final result, to show how they translated human emotions into animal antics. Then, you get the full (23:20) story, going back to the original short. For the series, the Aardman team conducted more than 300 interviews, collecting more than 500 hours of material, trying to find the right words to put into the mouths of animals. "There's something unique about real conversation," Director Goleszowski explains as he describes the process. For more immediate guidance, the "control panel" for accessing episodes and extras is easy to navigate and features animated highlights.
The transfers are mostly sharp, but a couple of night sequences were slightly grainy in the main 13 episodes, and the original short has a lot of grain. The sound is excellent, with voices in a variety of accents coming through clearly. The music soundtrack is repetitive in early episodes, taking a few chances later once the show found its rhythm.
One confusing point is that the animal characters' names aren't given in the episodes, but are referred to in the extras, on the back of the keep case, and on the Web site. Maybe to complete the interview conceit, they could have flashed the animal characters' names on the screen, as in an actual documentary.
Even though Creature Comforts looks cute and cuddly, the topics are often adult (touching on singles bars, the existence of life beyond Earth, and workplaces, to name a few), and there's occasional profanity. It's not a cartoon for small children, although teens who've dipped their toes into Adult Swim will get a kick out of this one, and adults who click to Cartoon Network first will want this one under their tree.
Not guilty. Case dismissed, although I'm left hoping that the lady who voiced the iguana finally found someone to cherish her.
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Scales of Justice
• "Creature Comforts" 1990 Animated Short
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