The lost Aardman movie, and why it fell apart

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When Chicken Run hit big at the box office, Aardman moved onto a project involving a hare and a tortoise – but it’d soon hit problems.

What they don’t tell you about Aardman, the quite wonderful world-class animation company based here in the UK, is that one of its premises there’s a sporting chance you may have seen. If you commute along the M5 motorway – in the days when you were allowed to drive along the M5 motorway – and crane your neck, there’s a homogenous, dull-looking series of industrial units (which hardly narrows it down) as you pass Bristol.

A spandex company is just up the road, you can’t park for anything, and any hint of Hollywood glamour is nowhere to be found. Underneath that roof, though – and a few miles from the company’s headquarters in Bristol – is the place where films such as the wonderful Farmageddon, The Pirates!, Early Man and more are made. A home too to Wallace & Gromit, and Chicken Run, with Chicken Run 2 next on the studio floor.

I’m a bit of an Aardman fanboy, truth be told.

The studio has an ongoing slate of movies it’s developing, and when I had the chance to visit last year, outgoing boss David Sproxton told me that there was a five year list queuing to get made. But also, it’s little secret that it’s had one or two films that didn’t ultimately get over the line in Bristol.

One of them became The Croods, a project it conceived and had been developing, but left behind at DreamWorks Animation when the five picture deal between it and Aardman ended after three (post-the release of the underrated Flushed Away).

The other, though, has never seen the light of day. It was a tale by the working title of The Tortoise And The Hare, and it was announced after the success of the company’s first full-length feature, the outstanding Chicken Run. The story of that film we’ve covered in a podcast, here

With both DreamWorks and Aardman happy with the outcome of their maiden movie together, work began in earnest on the next projects.

There was Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, that would see friction between the two companies over who ultimately controlled the rights to the characters (Aardman won that fight, but it reportedly caused a few issues). But in theory ahead of that came The Tortoise & The Hare. This one was set to be directed by Peter Lord (who had co-helmed Chicken Run and co-founded Aardman with Spoxton), and Richard Goleszowski, who subsequently co-steered the terrific Shaun The Sheep Movie.

As Sproxton and Lord admit in their book Aardman: An Epic Journey, they were caught a little on the hop when, after Chicken Run hit big, DreamWorks Animation boss Jeffrey Katzenberg asked them what was next. The problem was that just getting Chicken Run out of the door had been monumental for Aardman, with the company having to increase in size notably to handle feature production. It didn’t have anything particularly far along the line, but had been developing ideas.

One of them came from Chicken Run scribe Karey Kirkpatrick. He came up with a story that would put a spin on the fable of the hare and tortoise. He questioned what if the hare had won the infamous race, and that the scene was set for a rematch. It’d allow Aardman to frame a classic underdog story, and the animal characters were second nature to the studio (Goleszowski was a huge Creature Comforts fan for a start). The project moved forward.

Paul Whitehouse was cast to voice Harry the Hare, with Michael Caine initially lending his tones to Morris the Tortoise. The cast would also include Brenda Blethyn and Bob Hoskins, and Kirkpatrick got together a script together that was strong enough to get production moving.

The film was budgeted at $25m, and a story reel was produced. Before it was sent off, Caine dropped out of the project, but other than that, things seemed to be going okay.

The reel landed on the desk of Katzenberg at DreamWorks, and he said what some of the key creatives at Aardman had been thinking: this isn’t working. Notwithstanding the fact that models and sets had been produced, the core narrative wasn’t quite passing muster. Primarily, that it’d be perfectly obvious to the audience who would ultimately win the race, and thus where was the drama or tension in that?

For its second feature, Aardman once again found itself in uncharted waters: having to retool a movie once the starting gun had effectively been fired. As Peter Lord would reflect, “we went into production when we weren’t ready. Absolutely that. It’s a very risky place to be. The story had all the right elements – an underdog hero, an implausible challenge to take on. But it wasn’t quite funny or heartfelt enough”.

But the studio wasn’t giving up. It set to work trying to tweak and rework the story, changing characters and altering the narrative. But in the middle of 2001, with Jeffrey Katzenberg still not convinced, the project was put on pause. He asked the Aardman team to stop, take two weeks, and try and get it right.

Even after that, Goleszowski and Lord would fly out to Los Angeles with an idea for the film. But no dice: it just wasn’t clicking. And with the chances of the movie being greenlit diminishing, the studio had to lay off the 90 staff who working on it, as a much longer delay ensured. Six months on, in early 2002, the studio announced an indefinite postponement for the movie. $5m had been spent by that stage: not much to DreamWorks, an awful lot to Aardman.

Lord writes in the aforementioned book that “‘I have to say the film wasn’t good enough and we went into production too early. But now I often wonder: had we just gone ahead and finished it, would it have been so bad? It was bloody painful for so many people when we closed down that film – very stressful and very upsetting. So what if we’d kept going? Because when you do keep going, you do make it better”.

He also admits to inexperience, that “I didn’t really know what I was doing, honestly”. But chatting to Sproxton last year, he told me that with what Aardman had learned since across several features, had the project come up today, he reckons they’d have found a way forward (the world it had created – a city entirely populated by animals, right down to driving cars – feels close in setting at least to Zootropolis, a world that took CG animation to create).

But now, of course, is all too late. And much as though Pixar has only ever announced one film that it never completed, so Aardman has kept its projects closer to its chest. In the aftermath of the film’s shutdown, it would change its approach to development, and give itself more time. Furthermore, it’d indirectly lead to the Creature Comforts TV show, given the extended gap between feature productions.

Yet the story of The Tortoise And The Hare remains a painful one for Aardman. From an outsider looking in, I can’t help but think the lessons learned in some way paved the way forward for the terrific slate of motion pictures that followed, at least.

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