Though Aardman Animation is commonly known for the incredibly popular adventures of Wallace and Gromit, the creative staff has made it a point not to limit its formula for success. While Rex the Runt wasn't always my cup of tea and Chicken Run was a mild disappointment, it's hard not to love Creature Comforts, an unusual but highly entertaining short film and subsequent television series created by W&G mastermind Nick Park. If you've never seen either incarnation, they'll certainly catch you off guard…but in a good way, trust me.
The original stop-motion short (1990) won an Oscar for its brilliant portrayal of animal life behind the scenes, created and produced while A Grand Day Out (Wallace and Gromit's debut adventure) neared completion. Presented in a mockumentary format, Creature Comforts showed us---and continues to show us---what animals really think about themselves, humans, and life in general. The visuals of the original short are at or above the level seen in A Grand Day Out, as the free-form story format is paired with effective plasticine animation to give Creature Comforts an unusually striking atmosphere. This new incarnation of the original classic improves the technical quality greatly, while perfectly retaining the wit and charm.
Voiced by The Great British Public, Creature Comforts (both the original short and the series) is also something of a landmark in the audio department. Culled from interviews with ordinary British folk from around the country, the cream of the crop are paired with their own "animal"---a slow-talking old man with a basset hound, for example---for a surreality show unlike any other. The original short gave us a tour of the local zoo, with various inhabitants commenting on their living conditions, their favorite foods and other nutty stuff. If you've never seen it before, now's your chance. If you have, you'll most certainly be interested in what the studio's been up to lately.
Nearly fifteen years after the original short debuted, the Aardman talent unleashed a regular series that has remained faithful to its roots. Originally airing on British TV in 2003---and subsequently, Comedy Central in the US---the first season of Creature Comforts has finally made its debut on DVD. The scope of the concept has been broadened, as we leave the zoo for a more diverse group of animals, interviews, and random bits of philosophy. From the vet's office to the deep blue sea, it's tough not to smile as these guys spill their guts at home, work, or during their ample free time. The animation is flawless, easily up to par with Chicken Run or the best that W&G has ever looked. All in all, Creature Comforts is an entertaining series that literally speaks for itself.
Ever wonder what monkeys really think about performing in the circus? Should a baited worm fight his way off the hook or accept his fate? Are cats or dogs more interesting? More importantly, how do reindeer actually feel about that fat guy in the red suit? All these questions and plenty more are answered---or at least heavily debated---in the first season's 13 episodes, which run roughly 9 minutes apiece. Only Frank the turtle (from the original short) makes a few return appearances, so there are plenty of new friends to meet along the way.
Included here in their entirety are "The Circus", "Pets at the Vets", "Working Animals", "The Sea", "The Garden", "Feeding Time", "The Beach", "Pet Shop", "What's It All About?", "Being a Bird", "Is There Anyone Out There?", "Cats or Dogs?" and "Merry Christmas". The DVD combines these episodes with a nice mix of extras, adding up to several hours of entertainment. It's a fine collection that warrants a closer look…so let's see how it stacks up, shall we?
The audio presentation is also impressive, if not a bit subtle at times; even so, the 5.1 Surround Sound mix includes mild real channel use and a lively atmosphere. The varying types and degrees of British accents can make the dialogue hard to distinguish during a few scenes, so it's nice to have optional English subtitles (trust me, you'll probably need 'em!).
I liked the overall menu designs (seen above) from a visual standpoint, but the navigation and page transitions on the main menu were a bit on the clunky side. Each 9-10 minute short has been presented without any chapter stops, while no layer change was detected during playback. The actual packaging is very straightforward but the artwork is stylish, as this one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase with a chapter insert included.
Also included---and frankly, this collection wouldn't have been complete without it----is the original Oscar-Winning Short of the same name (5 minutes, above right). It's interesting to see how far the series has come technically: while the same wit, charm and amazing animation are on display, it's quite a bit rougher around the edges. The original Creature Comforts (1990) has long been a favorite of mine, having watched and re-watched it countless times on VHS and the now out-of-print DVD. Although I honestly can't recall the VHS specifics, the original DVD featured the short in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. It's presented here in 1.33:1 open matte fullscreen---and just for the record, I've brought a few screen comparisons to share with the rest of the class.
(NOTE: The above images appear as they would on a 16x9 television)
As you can see, there are quite a few notable differences between the two prints (and not just the color palette, either!). There's a very small amount of cropping on both sides on the open matte 1.33:1 print, but there's significantly more information on the top and bottom. Though I'm fairly certain the 1.78:1 aspect ratio may be the intended one (it's also presented that way during the behind-the-scenes featurette), I'll admit I prefer the open matte framing by a long shot.
On the other hand, the widescreen print is in better shape---and not just because of anamorphic enhancement, mind you---so it's a tough call. Those who own the original Creature Comforts disc will be lucky enough to have both versions, so the choice is yours. If optional subtitles were only included as they were for the newer shorts, it would've been an easier choice; either way, the original Creature Comforts is still a welcome addition that rounds out this disc nicely. Even so, I'd have loved to hear a few audio commentaries, either during the newer episodes or the original short.
It's always nice to see an ongoing series preserve the spirit and charm of the idea that spawned it. The dry humor may not appeal to all viewers, but fans of the original 1990 short should find this inaugural season of Creature Comforts a worthy successor in every regard. Overall, it's another top-notch effort from Aardman Animation, so those familiar with their work will easily be drawn to the terrific visuals and amazing atmosphere. This solid collection combines great A/V quality with a handful of entertaining extras...although the original short's aspect ratio is still a mystery. In any case, Creature Comforts: The Complete First Season is a disc that animation lovers simply can't afford to pass up. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is a moderately affable art instructor and gallery assistant based in Harrisburg, PA, who also enjoys freelance graphic design and illustration. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.