Following on from Aardman Classics, various Wallace and Gromits, Chicken Run and Angry Kid, Aardman’s Darkside is the latest in a growing collection of discs devoted to the Bristol-based animation studio. What makes this one different is the ‘Darkside’ tag, though this is an area which Aardman has never been afraid to deal in. Watch any of the above discs and you’ll notice a discernible edge: the Hitchcockian overtones to The Wrong Trousers; the sinister characters who populate Stagefright and Wat’s Pig; the Were-Rabbit; even the bleak realism found in the early Conversation Piece films for Channel Four. Moreover, this particular disc isn’t really all that concerned with the ‘Darkside’ after all, however you define it. Rather it’s more of an adult-orientated collection: over 80 minutes of animation in which we find the “Clapping Twat”, naked Australians, fart gags, talk of butt plugs and a fair spattering of swear words. The cynically inclined may find this more juvenile, in fact, than adult.
Of the assembled shorts and television episodes, it is perhaps the Rex the Runt appearances which will be most familiar. Screened in an afternoon slot on BBC2 during the late nineties, it’s fair to say that this particular series was never particularly dark. Certainly it could be odd (science fiction interpolations, nods to Miami Vice’s Don Johnson), play host to an instantly recognisable Paul Merton cameo and throw up some inventive gags (the pick of these episodes being the concept that in this canine populated world all supermodels are represented by greyhounds), but then much of it was also obvious and ultimately hit-and-miss. Indeed, in this latter respect it sets up the tone for the compilation as a whole: one minute sketchy and ineffectual, the next hilarious and genuinely inventive.
Unfortunately it’s the stand-alone shorts that fall into the “sketchy, ineffectual” category. Ramble On, Out of Joint and Boxed In, though very different in style and approach – 2D and 3D, handmade and computer assisted animation – each adds up to little beyond a single, often cheap gag. Boxed In, for example, recreates the familiar Roadrunner concept with an old man and a rat; nice enough, perhaps, but never particularly surprising or beyond the expected. Essentially it’s all a little too cosy, even if it is lending itself to a compilation dubbed Darkside.
The three Big Jeff and five A Town Called Panic! instalments are far more effective in their sketchy fragments. Big Jeff simply chucks in as much crude humour as it can to complement its crude animation, the choice joke being Fuckmefuckyou, a self-explanatory nod to Doctor Dolittle. Along similar lines A Town Called Panic! operates with an energy of almost too manic proportions; rather than take its time, it simply screams through its nonsensical plots and cheeky gags. Furthermore, it’s also the disc’s one great discovery. The 3D and stop-motion, it looks like nothing like previous Aardman efforts. Utilising kids’ toy figures (an Indian – as in “cowboys and Indians” – a solider, a horse, sundry farmyard props) it plays out like the most bizarre kids’ game imaginable, one in which a bear is on the prowl, a horse plays surrogate father to a soldier and an Indian and also has a penchant for baking cakes. Perhaps unsurprisingly it also demonstrates the violent edges you’d expect from such a kids’ game, were you to ever exist.
The only contribution not mentioned thus far are the nine Angry Kid episodes, though these should be familiar to animation fans having featured on disc before (both on their own collection and as an Easter egg on the Aardman Classics set). As an extra feature, however, we do find a brand new instalment, this one entitled Angry Kid’s Darkside. Though as brief as previous efforts, i.e. no more than a couple of minutes, it does include a nice little homage to An American Werewolf in London and as a result becomes the disc’s sole effort to flirt with horror. Indeed, the more you think about it, the more the Darksidetag seems misguided. Nonetheless, as an addition to Aardman’s DVD output it does make for a welcome tying up of loose ends despite the imbalances. As said, A Town Called Panic! is really quite wonderful and a genuine discovery, the rest swings between the good and the mediocre.
At 80 minutes in length, and with that single Angry Kid piece as an extra, Aardman’s Darkside fits easily onto a single dual-layered disc. No subtitles are available, but otherwise there’s little to fault in this collection’s handling. Original aspect ratios are adhered to and, where applicable, granted anamorphic enhancement. Furthermore, the prints used are in fine condition and there are no technical hurdles to spoil our enjoyment. As for the soundtracks, DD2.0 offerings appear in all cases and are as crisp and clear as should be expected. All round, a good effort which only makes the paucity of extras all the more disappointing. It’s worth remembering that Momentum’s Aardman Classics disc came with commentaries, info on the filmmakers and an Easter egg, not to mention an informative book for early buyers.