Have I Got Your Attention Now? Good

The Boss Baby (Tom McGrath, 2017)

This animation is more fun than it has any right to be — in part because of the vocal talents of Tobey Maguire as the narrator, Steve Buscemi as the villain and, above all, Alec Baldwin as the eponymous baby.

We have a few notes of political subtext — seven-year-old Tim’s imagining life in the jungle seems to be setting up a survival of the fittest philosophy that you imagine may collide with capitalism — but it brings the anxieties of the older offspring feeling edged out by the new baby.

The new baby is a ringer, who had been found to be insufficiently empathic, who has therefore been sidelined into management of Baby Corp and is now clad in a business suit. He has been sent to Tim and the Templeman family to try and discovers why puppies are becoming more popular than babies. Tim has discovered the truth about the baby, but is unable to convince any of the adults about the secret. Inevitably, however, the two have to work together to rescue the parents and stop the baby from growing up.

There is a strange mix of animation — an almost photorealistic style colliding with something rather more impressionistic. Repeatedly there are moments where you sense the animators at just showing off. The Baby Corp sequences are fun (although they have to go to great lengths to protect the naked babies’ modesties) and there are some fun moments of Elvis impersonators.

Of course we have a sense of contradiction here — the massive behemoth of DreamWorks satirising commerce — and sadly the opportunity for the cynical ending is sacrificed in favour of the feel good and the growing up and large hook for a sequel.

But frankly I feel forgiveness for a film that uses Alec Baldwin so well and allowing me the cultural capital of being the only person in the cinema to pick up on a Glen Garry Glen Ross reference.

Memories of the Noise Machine

Despite preferring written to visual science fiction, I suspect I began with television sf. I suspect the first sf I encountered was The Magic Roundabout and The Clangers. Later today, the BBC will broadcast the first new episode of the later in forty years. Given the treatment of The Magic Roundabout, I am understandably nervous.

That actually needs a bit glossing – the sf part of The Magic Roundabout was a film, Dougal and the Blue Cat, of which we had the album, the soundtrack cut to about sixty minutes. The Magic Garden comes under threat from the Blue Voice and her minion, Buxton, the Blue Cat, and the garden’s inhabitants are thrown into prison. Only Dougal evades capture, going under cover as Blue Peter (the Blue Dog) and is sent on a mission to the Moon… I never saw the film until it was released on video, but I did eventually get to see it on a big screen. It resonates through my unconscious.

The Clangers, like The Magic Roundabout, was originally broadcast on BBC1. My memory is they came at the end of children’s television (Blue Peter, say) and before the evening news, but it clearly varied from week to week. The creators, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin had been producing paper- and puppet-based animations since 1958 in a converted cowshed just north of Canterbury. The earliest Clanger appeared in Noggin and the Moon Mouse (1967), a spin-off book from Noggin the Nog (1959–65); the concept evolved into a species who live on a small planet, converting rubbish and debris into useful stuff.

Firmin is still around, in his late 80s and I’ve occasionally seen him around, even sat next to him at a screening of The Clangers. His wife, Joan, is a bookbinder and artist, and they had six daughters, at least two of whom are artists (and Emily is the girl in Bagpuss). He still is active, as far as I can tell making limited edition linocuts and vinyl prints on an antique printing press. He was the creator of Basil Brush and worked with Rolf Harris and then Wally Whyton on children’s television in addition to his collaborations with Postgate.

Postgate PlaquePostgate, who died in 2008 in Broadstairs, is the more intriguing figure of the two, whose voice is engraved on my memory. He was the son of radical historian Raymond Postgate and Daisy Lansbury, the grandson of Labour party leader George Lansbury and classicist John Percival Postgate and great grandson of surgeon and food campaigner John Postgate, His aunt, Margaret Cole, was a Fabian politician and social campaigner, whose husband G.D.F. Cole cowrote The Common People, 1746–1946 (1946) with Raymond Postgate. Postgate was a conscientious objector and anti-nuclear campaigner, and the last episode of The Clanger was broadcast on the eve of the October 1974 election, satirising the political process at the time. (There used to be a blog of Postgate’s thoughts on the Iraq war – I have been unable to relocate this). It should be no surprise that a Malcolm Hulke-scripted episode of Doctor Who features the Master watching an episode of The Clangers.

The Clangers is a product of a different era. An innocent era, one might say, but only on the surface (Rolf Harris?). The Postgate and Firmin animations have a charm that I think stays the right side of whimsey, there is an inevitable slowness to them that would be closer to, say, the first of the Wallace and Gromit stop motion animations than the latest Shaun the Sheep. And for whatever reason, I find the Clangers (and the inhabitants of the Magic Garden), realer than most CGI.

There were only twenty-seven episodes of The Clangers ever made – and my heart sank when I heard there would be a remake. I’d shuddered at the Nigel Planer-voiced The Magic Roundabouts that Danot had made after Eric Thompson stopped (Mr MacHenry is not Scottish – know your canon), gave up partway through the Dougal movie and couldn’t bring myself to watch the new cartoons (apparently the line “‘Time for Bed,’ said Zebedee” was nixed because the audience might not be going to bed when they watched the episodes). I am scared.

But NuClangers has the involvement of Daniel Postgate, and I am sure he would want to honour the spirit of his father’s work. The Solar Eclipse episode was reassuring https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsAyyOKoTik but when I get to watching the new episodes, on iPlayer I suspect, I will feel a little trepidation.

Incidentally, a number of Postgate/Firmin puppets are on show at Canterbury Heritage Museum, but note that outside of Easter to September it is only opening during school holidays. There is also Postgate’s Becket frieze.

Keep the Wensleydale Flying

Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, 2015)

“But just at that moment, as though at a signal, all the sheep burst out into a tremendous bleating.”

I guess there are spoilers here.

Deep into the end credits of this film, the producers acknowledge their appropriation of Silence of the Lambs – not the property of Thomas Harris or even Jonathan Demme, but of MGM. The pastiche itself – which should fall under the fair use provision for purposes of parody – came at precisely the point that it occurred to me that this was a much thinner film than Chicken Run (Pete Lord and Nick Park, 2000) or Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit (Nick Park and Steve Box, 2005). Both of those were stuffed full with movie references, whereas this is more cautious in its appropriations. Ownership is respected.

It’s a familiar enough reactionary fable: on the farm the sheep are alienated from the product of their labours, the days ticking by in Sisyphean toil. A dog, lackey of the system, helps the farmer in his exploitation, blind to the ways in which he too is a cog in the system. The very name of the farm – Mossy Bottom – shows its position within society and the stasis of such society.

Come the day of the revolution – masterminded by Shaun – the dog is restrained by a turncoat dog and the farmer is driven into exile. The sheep briefly take over the farmhouse and briefly enjoy the fruits, but the opportunist pigs rapidly take their place in the second part of the June Revolution. Unable to function without a master, the sheep face starvation and follow the similarly interpellated dog into the Big City. In perhaps the most interesting ideological move of the film, the wider system becomes apparent – the dog substitutes for a surgeon and the farmer for a barber. Note how the farmer/barber receives but a fraction of the payment for his work, his excess labour swelling the surplus value of the salon. In a sneaky use of a dual time frame, the farmer becomes gains the status of a commodity whilst the animals remain in Aristotelian time. Meanwhile there is social satire in a restaurant worthy of Buñuel.

As a parable for children, however, the urge is for restoration. Dorothy may get out of Kansas, but she knows there’s no place like home. The Bakhtinian carnival of the central section of the film is but licensed escape and the Animal Containment officer’s encagement of the sheep as strays in the city disguises the cage of Mossy Bottom farm in an appropriately Foucauldian manner. The gate must be kept shut at all times. We prefer it that way.