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Two words: 'Chicken Run' - Now with that in mind, you may decide whether or not to read the rest of this review ...

This DVD encompasses The Early Years of Aardman Animations in a comprehensive 157min collection of their varied (and sometimes totally bizarre) animated efforts.  The majority of work exhibited here are of their more personal and artistic endeavours rather than their subsequent commercial efforts.  If you have ever watched those weird 5-minute plasticine animation TV-shorts where the characters always speak in a hybrid of many different tongues, then Aardman would be the people to turn these things inside-out and throw them into a blender that would make Picasso look like he had 20/20 vision.

Brazillian Cougar in 'Creature Comforts'
As Aardman & Co. developed their skills through somewhat abstract and (as many would agree) cryptic stop-animation projects, their reputation was finally thrust upon the world's eye with the classic music video of 'Sledgehammer' which was composed by Peter Gabriel.  The musician was involved every step of the way with the animators to become imortalised within the bizarre world that Aardman had concocted.  Unfortunately, this music video is not part of the DVD's contents (no doubt due to the complex music rights) even though it was made available on the earlier VHS Vol.1 release.

Another of their very successful commercial ventures was, indeed, TV commercials, namely the 'Electric' series of ads which were an extension of their original 'Creature Comforts' project.  This series proved that when Aardman really put their minds to it, they could create totally sane worlds (albeit with talking animals).  So although the characters sounded like your average homely English folk praising the wonders of all the electrical products around them, they were indeed plasticine animals speaking the person's lines - very much like the world seen in 'Chicken Run'.

'Pib and Pog' have a slight disagreement
Synopsis
This DVD shows all their best works from their pre Wallace & Grommit days in a rough chronological order, which is interspersed with their entire collection of the 'Electric' ads in between (no doubt to look like a TV program with commercials).  Most of these works also include an audio commentary track from the main players of Aardman & Co., which provides an interesting insight into the history of each of the projects, and even throws in some helpful hints for anyone who's ever thought of dabbling in animation of any kind - Mind you, the saying that "Patience is a Virtue" has never been more apt than when you are in the business of hands-on animation!

Video
Generally speaking, the older animation projects exhibited the worst of the video quality, which is especially evident in the clay-animation projects.  However, there are a couple of CGI-rendered projects in here where the quality here is near-perfect.  I would guess that the majority of the video comes from ancient VHS archives rather than from the original film-stock used to produce the animation in the first place, which is a missed opportunity here I'm afraid.  But I guess that it would have cost a small fortune to remaster a varied 'artistic' collection such as this.

Audio
Nothing remarkable here.  In fact, a lot of the audio was recorded from the old reel-to-reel tapes that were popular in the 70s/80s, and unfortunately it does not stand up to the demands of a high-quality home-cinema system.  It is perfunctory to the material, but not satisfactory.  However, the higher quality projects have a much better sound production attached to them.

Extras
The majority of extras are a director's commentary for most of the animation projects (not all of them), a behind-the-scenes photo-gallery and (a first for DVD) a 64-page booklet containing a summary on the Aardman Animation Studio.

The commentary offers some insightful information regarding why and how certain projects were undertaken and is well worth a listen or two.  The photo-gallery is barely worth mentioning, since they show around 30 pictures including behind-the-scenes work on the projects and a few storyboards, which quite frankly only ever shows the world outside of the little sets that are created on the tables themselves.  The 64-page booklet is a great read as it contains a good run-down of the history behind the studio and a selected filmography of their work, but I wish I could have gotten more out of 64 pages.

Now the bad stuff - There is a chapter selection viewer which animates a page-flick of a book, with each page containing 4 chapters to select from.  However, this is terribly unwieldy as it takes at least 5 seconds to turn each page, and it takes a good 3 minutes to get to the end page of chapters to choose from.  Unfortunately, when watching the video clips themselves it gets worse - you're not allowed to choose a chapter by pressing the number on your remote, you are forced to use the NEXT/PREVIOUS buttons to navigate whilst viewing them - annoying to say the least.  The problems get even worse when navigating on the PC's DVD-ROM drive - don't even get me started on this one!

'Not Without My Handbag'
Summary
To be honest, this DVD is not for everyone, even for those who enjoyed 'Wallace & Grommit' and 'Chicken Run'.  But it is a true gem for those who adore Aardman's unique stop-animation creations.  The example pictures in this review do not nearly convey the awesome talent that this group has for expressing the emotions and nuances of every character they portray in moulding clay (and other materials).  If you like watching everything from the sublime to the surreal, then you'll find this disc a great alternative viewing experience.  Shame about 'Sledgehammer' though ...


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