Friday 25 May 2012

Why Don't Aardman Films Do as Well in America?

Note the very British Blue Peter badge on the hat of the far-left pirate.

Aardman, for the few of you that don't know, is the studio that brought us Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Chicken Run, Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, four brilliant films that all received critical praise, with the former two being lauded as fantastic. And now their latest film, The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists, is out; it's been out for about two months over here in the UK, and about one month in the US. However, whilst the critical praise is (as we have come to expect with Aardman) high, the box-office returns are not so.

So far, The Pirates!, branded in the US as The Pirates! Band of Misfits, the big screen adaptation of Gideon Defoe's popular children's books, has grossed about $100,000,000 worldwide. Only a quarter of that amount was collected in the US, with the majority coming from other regions (it had a particularly strong box-office run here in the UK). As we reported a few weeks ago, The Pirates! was received with, despite the positive word of mouth, Aardman's weakest opening ever stateside, and hasn't drastically improved on that since. Admittedly, $100 million isn't to be sniffed at, it's more than double the takings of the likes of, the equally great, live-action feature Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but it's still disappointing for a film that has received such strong critical praise and a fairly good advertising campaign.

Unfortunately though, this is more the rule than the exception where Aardman films are concerned, despite an average Rotten Tomatoes score of 88% and a national following here in the UK, Aardman films average less than $170 million worldwide; largely due to none too strong performances in America. The question though is why, when they are such huge hits here in the UK?

Well, to me, what makes Aardman (particularly its most famous creations Wallace and Gromit) so popular here in England is the fact that they're so quintessentially British. Wallace and Gromit are British icons. They are symbols for what is British, or what is thought to be British: fixation with tea, cheese and crackers and an affinity for sitting at home, in a comfy chair reading the paper. Every Christmas, without fail, the Wallace and Gromit short films will be shown and re-shown on TV, and the duo's 2005 film, Curse of the Were-Rabbit, is likewise very popular. And just as their personalities are very British, so is the humour that their films (and indeed those of Aardman in general) employ. It is a very nuanced, everyday type of humour; as opposed to the slightly louder American humour and slapstick.

So, the very reason that Wallace and Gromit are so popular over here, may be the very reason they've never really caught on en masse in America. It is very much of its setting, it is very much a British attraction, and, although the characters are incredibly well defined and the films incredibly well written, it's to such an extent that it just doesn't translate as well. British humour, and the characters and films that Aardman spawn from this, is very subtle; so that to some American audiences, it just comes across as a trifle boring. One needs only compare an American stand-up comedian to a British one like Jo Brand or Jack Dee to see my point, British humour is more sarcastic or quiet (in general that is, Michael McIntyre and Russell Howard are rather high-energy), where Americans tend to be much grander and louder. I'm by no means saying that American films are devoid of good characters; Pixar, after all, is the best animation studio on the planet and they're American - and Pixar don't have a monopoly on great American characters and animated films either - I'm just saying that their characters are achieved in a very different way. It's very much the same reason that Studio Ghibli films have never caught on that much in the West; the characters and films don't translate brilliantly, they're of a specific culture.

However, it's not that the Americans don't like British films, Harry Potter is also very British and has done phenomenally almost everywhere in the world - with it's final instalment currently sitting as the third highest grossing film of all time (although look for Marvel's The Avengers to overtake that soon). The Americans have very much accepted Potter as their own, but there is one core difference between Harry Potter and Aardman: fantasy. As previously mentioned, the Americans love everything big, and you don't get much bigger than Harry Potter. Where the Potter films are huge spectacles of magic, battles, wizardry and special effects, Aardman films are largely grounded in realism. This is what leads to the often slower pace of Aardman films, such as in Chicken Run (The Pirates! director Peter Lord's first film) despite the fairly ambitious plots; they're grounded in everyday antics. It's very much the same reason that Tintin never particularly managed to breach America before Spielberg introduced him. The more European works, like Tintin and Wallace and Gromit, are based on the premise that their characters are everyday guys, like you or me. This concept just isn't surreal enough for American audiences, who seem to crave more escapism in the cinema than anything else. Once again, it's a matter of the films not quite translating.

But, then surely The Pirates! should have been a bigger hit? Pirating and sea-based shenanigans are far broader topics than almost any of Aardman's previous films; look at how well Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has done, even the lacklustre fourth instalment. Aardman even broadened their humour somewhat here, using more physical comedy - not to say they ever lost the trademark British wit that makes their films such delightful hits here. Arthur Christmas, Aardman's release last year, had a broader topic also - Christmas - but focused in such a way that it was still a great and enjoyable film. Yet, despite a decent run, taking in just shy of $150 million, it was still Aardman's lowest grossing film to date, with Chicken Run being the highest and the only to gross over $200 million worldwide. Unless The Pirates! drastically improves, it looks like that may become Aardman's lowest grossing - which is a great shame. Especially with the backing of Sony, I would've thought Aardman's last two outings would have had much better financial prospects than this.

Aardman put a supreme amount of effort into their animation, as evident here during animation of a Shaun the Sheep episode. During filming of Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Aardman averaged 3 seconds of usable footage per day.

Obviously my opinion isn't the only one, nor is it even necessarily the correct one, but I really do think The Pirates! is not only one of Aardman's best films (and that's tough competition), but it's also one of the best animated films I've seen in the past few years. It really deserves strong returns, and Aardman does too, to validate the fantastic, painstaking work they put into the film and indeed all of their films! Let's just hope that the less than exciting box-office run the film's experienced so far doesn't scupper the studio's plans for a sequel, it'd be great to see how well Aardman could handle the wonderful characters a second time round. Between that, the planned Shaun the Sheep Movie, The Cat Burglars, and Nick Park's untitled project, the future sounds bright for Aardman - critically anyway, we'll just have to wait to see how well they fare in America, but fingers crossed.

In the meantime, my honest suggestion is that you go and see The Pirates! while it's still out. You won't regret it. If you're still unsold, try checking out our review.

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