Cracking toast, Gromit!
Throughout the course of my lifetime several stop-motion animation efforts have been brought to the small screen, few as beautifully as the Wallace & Gromit trilogy. Nick Park and his crew at Aardman animations have done such a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life it is of little wonder they received such high praise from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. All three films earned a nomination for Best Short Film (Animated), two of which (The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave) won the award. The first film in the trilogy, A Grand Day Out, actually lost to another Nick Park animated short entitled Creature Comforts. The Academy shouldn't be the reason you see these films though. Unlike many of the usual Oscar winners, the Wallace & Gromit shorts are not pretentious, wordy, art-house friendly, existentialist humdrum. On the contrary, these are simple, visually arresting, and extremely funny. These films are intended to make the audience laugh and do so quite proficiently. Originally created for the BBC, the films have garnered the appreciation of both fans and critics alike, reflected in the immense success of the video release. Originally released on three separate videotapes, we now have all three movies and a few great extras on one DVD.
Facts of the Case
A Grand Day Out is our first introduction to the world of Wallace (an inventor with an affinity for cheese) and Gromit (his highly intelligent pet dog). In a moment of desperation when Wallace runs out of his supply of cheese, he decides to build a rocket, which will transport him and Gromit to the moon. The mission: stock up on cheese. You see, the moon is made of cheese and no one else seems to be harvesting its rich bounty. Always the supportive pet, Gromit agrees to help him build the rocket and go along for the ride. The duo makes it to the moon safely and decides to give it a little exploration. During their tour they run across an old coin operated oven, which turns out to be robot. This is the point in the story where Nick Park really takes his craft to a completely different level than any of his predecessors. Nick has a remarkable ability to bring the inanimate to life. The face-less robot is given a human quality achieved through the use of its humanoid movements and thought cloud (which incidentally can be tuned by using an antenna) depicting its one desire, to go to the earth and ski. Needless to say, hilarity ensues and the viewer is treated to a half hour of very enjoyable film-making.
This isn't a plot driven story, so you needn't take notes. As a matter of fact, none of the three movies require a lot of study. Simply sit down with your family and enjoy.
The Wrong Trousers is the second of the three films in the series. In this installment, Wallace and Gromit are forced to rent out a room in their home do to a lack of funds. It seems that after Wallace purchased a birthday gift for Gromit, there isn't enough money left over to pay the bills. The gift in question is a pair of "techno-trousers." The intent was to give Gromit a robotic pair of pants to take him out for "walkies" whenever he so chooses. Never impressed by his master's pathetic attempts to impress him, Gromit quickly finds more practical uses for the trousers. One funny scene has him using the pants in conjunction with a set of suspenders to walk up the wall and paint the ceiling of his new room. Again using the unexpected to attain new levels with his animation, Nick Park uses a penguin to portray the character of the tenant. This is perhaps one of the most sinister of animated characters ever put on the silver screen. There is such a cold numbness to him that you immediately recognize there is something up his wing. Turns out he is an escape convict plotting a diamond heist which will require the use of Gromit's new techno-trousers. This is perhaps the best written of the three films, giving each character a solid backstory. The story moves along at a perfect pace and gives just enough detail to leave you without any questions, yet not too much so as to bog down the entertainment level of the picture. This is family-friendly in every sense of the word. Parents will enjoy the humor and kids will enjoy the slapstick and action. I think the fact that Nick Park doesn't pander to his audience makes his work all the more watchable. I never felt like I was watching a "kids" movie, yet never felt like the movie was inappropriate for a young child. Great stuff!
The third and final movie in the series is A Close Shave. Our chief inventor has created a sheep-shearing machine called the Knit-O-Matic, which can be used to spin the wool from the sheep right onto the loom. There is only one problem…apparently a wool shortage has caused our heroes to seek part time employment. While on a window washing assignment, Wallace gets romantically involved with a lonely shop owner. Her dog Preston is a large menacing creature with an apparent dislike for Gromit. Preston is the villain of this picture and it is his goal to kidnap sheep and hijack Wallace's sheep-shearing machine. It turns out he has some big plans of his own involving a combination of the sheep, Knit-O-Matic, and a new "sheep mincing thingy" he has created. There is a great chase and rescue sequence that must be seen by all. You will most assuredly notice the stylistic influences of this picture in Nick Park's latest film Chicken Run. Like the first two pictures, A Close Shave is great family entertainment and a real delight to watch.
Fans of Nick Park and the Wallace & Gromit series know how special these films really are. If you have never seen one of these pictures however, you owe it to yourself to do so. You won't be disappointed. Come to think of it, I have never met someone who didn't like these movies. That's not to say there aren't people out there who didn't like them, just that those people have all been forced to move back to their home planet where they can carry on their bitter lives in solitude.
The video quality on the DVD is surprisingly good. Having seen them several times on VHS, I can assure you that the people over at Fox have done a fine job with the transfer into the digital format. Although presented in full frame, there was no noticeable artifacting or moiré. The colors are vibrant and the blacks are deep. I'm sure these were given to us in Full Frame because that is how they were meant to be viewed. Remember, they were made for TV. The audio doesn't hold up quite as well and quality varies from film to film. You will most likely notice the increase in budget reflected obviously in the films' scores. The first film sounds like it had a four-piece ensemble and little direction. As the budget increased in the next two films, so did the quality of the orchestration. The last of the pictures even incorporates some nice directionality in the chase scene. The sound is nothing spectacular, but it does the job.
If there was any area of the disc I expected to be richer, it was the extras. Although we are treated to part of a documentary on the making of The Wrong Trousers, the fact that it wasn't left in its entirety prevented it from being more than just mentionable. As soon as I was involved in the "making of" feature, it ended. I have seen this making of feature before on Bravo or some such station and remember being fascinated by it. It would have been quite a treat to have the entire piece here. The early shorts by Nick Park were fun to watch and reminded me of the hidden first horror movie by M. Night Shyamalan on the Sixth Sense disc. Not that they were horrific, just that it's obvious both directors had a lot of growing to do before they were ready for a feature. In addition, we are given a series of Christmas interstitials created for the BBC which are quite fun to watch. Made me wish I lived in England.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only complaint I have with these discs is that they weren't given the special edition treatment, which seems commonplace in the DVD world these days. I can think of many inferior titles that have never gained any kind of critical recognition that have been loaded in the extra features department. Like I said earlier, the entire "making of" should be here. I really can't think of any reason it wasn't. Also, I am sure they have enough footage of the making of the other two films that they could have included those as well. These films could have used a commentary track by Nick Park and some of the other people involved in making them happen. I always feel that a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix should be included; however, I understand that they didn't exactly make the studios a great deal of money so they probably weren't willing to take the time to create one. Seeing as those are the only complaints I can come up with, there really is no reason to avoid these films.
The Wallace & Gromit series is very special in the world of family entertainment. Very rarely do you get such enjoyable and safe family fare. I must whole-heartedly recommend these movies to anyone who hasn't seen them. For that matter, if you don't already own this disc, I say go buy it now. I have already watched it at least 10 times and I've only had it for two weeks.
Animators and moviemakers everywhere are guilty for not giving us a product of this caliber up to this point. Nick Park and his crew at Aardman are not only innocent of any wrongdoings, but are now the benchmark by which all family film creators are to be measured.
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Scales of Justice
• Four of Nick Park's Early Animations
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