Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has always harbored secret fantasies of being a rock drummer. He also likes new trousers, which makes two things he has in common with this animated British aardvark.
An aardvark who dared to dream.
Two things immediately become apparent when you pop this DVD into the player. The stop-motion animation is well-crafted. Also, Hamilton Mattress is very, very British.
Facts of the Case
Hamilton Mattress combines the talents of three British animation heavies: Barry Purves, Chris Moll, and Mackinnon & Saunders. The closest parallel in terms of style is the Wallace and Gromit series, which is understandable: Chris Moll produced them. Yet Hamilton Mattress is its own entity.
Painstakingly rendered over the course of two years, Hamilton Mattress details the misadventures of Sludger the aardvark, a dingy creature slaving away to forage for ants. When his innate drumming talent catches the eye of Feldwick C. Hackenbush (talent scout caterpillar extraordinaire), the two set out for glamorous Beak City. Beak City is all about glossy beaks and shiny plumage, and Sludger possesses neither. He reinvents himself as Hamilton Mattress and drums behind the scenes for a popular nightclub. The militant owner Señor Balustrade hatches a plan which will put Sludger in peril. Sludger and Feldwick are forced to cope with the competing forces of fame and identity.
I said above that the stop-motion animation is well-crafted. I should have said that Hamilton Mattress is well-crafted in general. The showpiece is, of course, the hand-constructed animation. The movie is a spectacle of movement and color, with surprisingly complex sequences and effects. Characters cry, fight with chainsaws, and slurp down drinks at the bar—and it all looks great. It is no mean feat to make metal struts and foam latex seem like feathers flowing in the breeze.
A thumping score and great sound effects complement the animation. Our entire family, my toddler in particular, was dancing around the living room to the beat of Hamilton's drums. In this sense, Hamilton Mattress provides entertainment worth the sticker price, just to watch your kids dancing around with such glee. The voice actors hit just the right balance of dry humor and zaniness, which makes Hamilton Mattress an aural treat as well. The combination of fantastic animation with great sound is why Hamilton Mattress has won so many awards, including the 2002 Grand Prix for Best Television Animation at Annecy, France, and Best TV Special in the 2002 British Animation Awards.
I said above that Hamilton Mattress is very, very British. I should have said that Hamilton Mattress is very, very British, particularly the humor. The characters riff on class status, new trousers, rubbish bins, and other British things. Take, for example, this quote from the press release: "John…has been responsible for some of the most famous and most loveable advertising creations, from the Cadbury's Smash Martians to the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster and the Cresta Bear (remember 'It's frothy, man'?)." Anglophiles will be in heaven.
Americans who face a full onslaught of British humor are at a disadvantage. The funniest stuff is said under the breath, quick as a whip, in dense British accents. In America, the funniest stuff is spoken slowly and sarcastically, typically at the top of one's lungs. "Louder" equals "more important." We must struggle to catch the barely whispered witticisms in British humor, granted we even notice them at all. Perhaps Harvest Films and the BBC would be kind enough to produce an American version, maybe with Eddie Murphy and Janeane Garofalo?
The DVD shows the same attention to craftsmanship as the short film. Hamilton Mattress was shot in 35mm, and the results show in the transfer. The grain is respectably fine, taking a back seat to impressive detail. There were very few instances of dirt or scratches in the print. The transfer is on the soft side, with certain details slightly out of focus. There is also a tendency to overuse digital noise reduction. The colors are stable, but not overly punchy. As you'll hear in the commentary, this subdued palate is intentional: later scenes display brilliant color. When Sludger dons a new suit there is a nasty stretch of moirè, but many films are guilty of the same "effect." Considering the labor-intensive nature of the filming process, I'm impressed with the quality of the film transfer.
For a 2.0 surround track, this one fills the room with catchy rhythms. I've heard 5.1 tracks that were weaker than this one. On the other hand (inter-cultural teasing aside), the aforementioned accent-laden throwaway lines are somewhat hard to hear. Subtitles would be a boon.
One reason we love DVD is for the extras, and this DVD does not skimp. The commentary is the centerpiece, with the director, writer, and producer each chipping in interesting tidbits. The commentary is quite active, with little dead space. The commentators are brimming with insights and opinions, and they only have a half-hour to cram them all in. They cover the technical challenges, bloopers, history, and decisions that inform the final product. Hearing why they put certain details into the picture gives us a greater appreciation for their creative process.
Three documentary extras support the main commentary. Most entertaining is the Behind the Voices featurette, which shows the voice actors hamming it up in character. I'm always amused to see the physical process that accompanies voice acting. Two traditional featurettes, Making-of Documentary and The Birth of an Aardvark, feature interviews with the main filmmakers, including co-writer Anna Farthing. These features learn more towards back-patting than the commentary does, but the self-congratulatory material is restrained in favor of providing details about the production. All told, the Hamilton Mattress DVD provides a healthy spate of extra content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The problem with Hamilton Mattress is the story. The production is ambitious and dazzling, but the story is not very interesting. It is supposed to be an uplifting tale about an aardvark who learns the value of being himself, but there are several problems with that premise. It has been done, and done, and done some more. It has been done so often that we already know how Hamilton Mattress is going to turn out, right down to Feldwick's change of heart and the appearance of Beryl. The real problem with this approach is that Sludger is never in any danger of forgetting who he is. Sludger remains remarkably grounded, even oblivious, the entire time. He doesn't go through much growth; he experiences no true crisis of self. Even Feldwick's coldhearted actions seem half-hearted.
Hamilton Mattress calls itself a modern fable, which is another term for allegory. It is hard to make allegory approachable. The characters and locations take on greater significance, encapsulating universal themes of humanity. The characters in Hamilton Mattress are so clearly rendered that there is no mystery about what they will do, no real point of connection. I've watched this film four times, and even repeated viewings don't give me much sympathy for or buy-in to the characters.
Related to the weak story is a reliance on clichéd gags. The most notable example is the way Feldwick and Sludger enter Beak City. Feldwick ties a rope around Sludger's belly, loops it over a tree, throws a weight on the other end, and sends them both soaring through the clouds and into the city. This particular mode of transportation has never made any sense, and it ceased to be funny about 50 years ago. The commentary track reveals that this sequence went through several iterations, including a flying taxi, a traveling circus, and a hot air balloon. Any of those choices would have been superior. Even a simple shot of the characters walking away and later entering Beak City would be better.
It is up to you to decide whether sparkling stop-motion animation, catchy music, and a hearty dose of dry British humor is enough to overcome an uninvolving allegorical plot. If you have kids, this is a DVD that might get a lot of play in your house; there is something for both kids and parents. I'm willing to overlook the lapses in storytelling for the richly detailed animated world we are given.
The court finds Hamilton Mattress, AKA Sludger, innocent. Señor Balustrade is guilty of assault with a plastic chainsaw. Let the drumming commence!
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Barry Purves, Producer Chris Moll, and Writer John Webster
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