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"Creature Comforts" The Complete First Season: Feet of Clay, Words of Tedium

Thanks to the considerable success of Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit, Nick Park is on his way to becoming a household name in the U.S. But an unintended consequence of the popularity of these properties is that Park’s most acclaimed short goes relatively unnoticed. Back in 1991 the Oscar for best animated short film went not to the first Wallace and Gromit short but to Park’s Creature Comforts, in which Claymation zoo animals expound on life’s ins and outs. In 2003 he revisited the concept for a 13-part TV series that has just been released on DVD.

The castI imagine a lot of people who buy the Creature Comforts – The Complete First Season DVDs loved the new film and think they’ll be getting more of the same. Boy will they be surprised, and not for the better. Rather than telling a story with actors, this is merely a series of real interviews with real people on various aspects of their daily lives. Afterwards a variety of Claymation animals were made to lip sync to the interview responses.

Unfortunately Creature Comforts is simply not funny, which I never expected from a Park production. It’s very British, and so very, very dry I was surprised the clay didn’t crumble. All that’s left is rather ordinary anecdotes on rather ordinary topics with little entertainment value aside from some cute animals.

Each of the 13 nine-minute episodes focuses on a different topic: the circus, doctors, work, the sea, gardening, food, the beach, pet shops, the origin of life, birds, extraterrestrials, cats vs. dogs, and Christmas. A wide variety of creatures from dogs to shrimp to parrots to amoebas to turtles to slugs to horses and so on appear. Some are specific to the topic at hand, such as circus bears, and some of them appear in multiple shorts. The same goes for the backgrounds.

What doesn’t change is the boredom these episodes inspire, apart from two bright spots: “Working Animals” and “Merry Christmas.” “Working” is the only episode to display the true potential of this concept, and probably the only one that will appeal to Wallace fans. It includes more physical antics than usual, and unlike the other episodes the visuals are carefully matched to the dialogue to set up jokes.

Among these is a pheasant crouching in the forest foliage, talking about how as he’s grown older he’s become more calm, only to duck and tremble when he hears gunshots. A cockroach in a kitchen says about the chef, “He would throw knives around. Thankfully I didn’t have a lot of dealings with him. My friend got hit in the neck.” And a worm on a descending fishing hook says, “You can’t be morbid, because you wouldn’t be able to do the work.”

Best of all is a couple of white lab mice conducting their interview in a large maze while their brethren wander about, chat, read the newspaper, etc. in the background. One relates, “In some labs you can have music playing because…what you’re doing isn’t using your brain at the time.” Another says about drug testing, “I take so many drugs… I am a clinical trial.” As the lights are switched off and his last remaining companion is snatched up one nervously confesses, “I’m terrified of retirement.”

In Fluffy the hamster's trailer“Merry” isn’t actually funny, but the combination of lovingly rendered Christmas scenes and touching anecdotes warmed even this cold heart. For example there’s a touching image of a pigeon on a ledge peering through a frosted window and describing the tempting Christmas delicacies within, “Trifle, that’s always good. I’m always starving.” And a farmyard turkey frets, “They’re all going to get a piece of me.”

Creature is just the ticket for people who want to learn about the thoughts and attitudes of the British public both young and old. But it could be much more entertaining with a few changes. First, some consistent background slapstick would have helped lighten the mood. Next, the topics could have been made more relevant to the animals, such as dating, fighting, or child-rearing. “Working” is effective because the animals depicted actually do work in a sense, and we feel like they are talking about their own experiences, as opposed to topics like evolution and alien life forms on which we would hardly expect animals to have an opinion. Finally, one would have thought they could find some interviewees with genuinely compelling voices and amusing anecdotes. There’s a reason Al Gore doesn’t get a lot of voice work.

At least Creature delivers on the visuals in trademark Park style. The character designs are full of personality and often irresistibly cute. The superb animation is flawlessly smooth, though it’s a pity it’s mostly confined to facial expressions and the odd gesture. The sets are also fantastic, full of all kinds of little details. If nothing else, this series is certainly a pleasure to look at.

The extras, accessed via a menu screen graced with a flatulent bovine, begin with a short but not short enough featurette showing the production staff physically acting out some of the scenes to give cues to the animators. Next is a thorough making-of documentary that takes us from the creation of the original 1989 short through the current series. We get a look at how the interview material was matched up with character designs, the production of the sets and manipulation of the clay models. One staffer reveals that each animator was only able to film about four seconds of footage per day. There’s a certain feeling of melancholy exploring the Aardman Animations warehouse, which was regrettably lost to a fire last month. In another featurette director Richard Goleszowski talks about his favorite scenes. Finally there’s the original 1989 short itself, which is much the same as the series only not nearly as refined.

Students of sociology and stop motion animation will probably find much of interest in Creature Comforts, but I can’t recommend it to the general public. Children are unlikely to sit still for much of it, and even I, a big Park fan, kept checking my watch, if partly in anticipation of the upcoming The Curse of the Were-Rabbit DVD. Now there’s a couple of creatures who’ve always got something interesting to say.

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