Judge Mike Rubino is always embarrassed when he wears the wrong trousers.
Our reviews of Wallace And Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf And Death (published September 25th, 2009) and Wallace And Gromit: The Complete Collection (Blu-Ray) (published September 22nd, 2009) are also available.
"Cracking toast, Gromit!"—Wallace
Wallace and Gromit, those entrepreneurial small business owners of bucolic England, have faced their share of calamities and fiascos. They've encountered robots on the moon, a penguin disguised as a chicken, a vengeful robot dog, and, now, a culinary serial killer. For these stop-motion heroes' 20th anniversary, Lionsgate has packaged their four short films in a single package stuffed with extras.
Facts of the Case
The Wallace and Gromit series was created by Nick Park and Aardman Animations in the United Kingdom back in the '80s. Since that time, the series has enjoyed four short films, a feature-length movie (The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), and a couple videogames. Here are the short films contained in the set:
• A Grand Day Out (1989)
• The Wrong Trousers (1993)
• A Close Shave (1995)
• A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008)
It's strange to think that it's been 20 years already since Nick Park created the Wallace and Gromit series. This charming man/dog team has been a staple of the animation genre for two whole decades, and yet each installment feels as timeless as ever. What's even more impressive is that while watching this latest short I never once wished it was computer generated. No, each one of these films offers up a much more tangible, hand-crafted vibe that no farm of frigid, pixel-crunching IBMs could match. This isn't the first time the original trilogy of shorts have been released on DVD (I count at least three other collections), but if you don't already have this in your collection, Aardman just upped the ante.
Newcomers, or fans just familiar with the feature film, will find the first adventure, A Grand Day Out, a little jarring at first. The film is unpolished, quiet, and choppy. While it may not be able to compete with later installments on a technical level, it has the heart and soul present in every Wallace and Gromit adventure: Wallace is the kind of romantic dreamer who would travel to the moon for a good hunk of cheese; Gromit is a realist, the practical straight man infinitely loyal to his friend no matter how absurd the scheme. Their journey is filled with a density of sight gags that would become a staple for the series, and the robot waiting for them on the moon is classic (just wait until he starts skiing).
It's hard to really fault anything in A Grand Day Out, mainly because it was Park's first film. He began working on it seven years prior, as part of a graduation project for film school. It's like reading the debut novel from an up-and-coming author; the themes, characters, settings, and humor that permeates the entire series gets it start with this charming first film.
My first experience with the series, and personal favorite, is Park's second installment, The Wrong Trousers. Here, Wallace and Gromit take in a tenant who happens to be the infamous Feathers McGraw, a penguin bank robber who disguises himself as a chicken (or Howie Mandel). The story is a well-balanced mix of suspense and humor—something that each film in the set strives to achieve, but this one nails it. The story develops in three taut acts, with Gromit's expressive brow and incessant distrust of outsiders leading the way. If nothing else, Park shows that by Trousers he's become an expert at efficient storytelling.
Not only is the plot spectacular, but the technical aspects of Trousers have progressed far beyond the first film. Park uses plenty of selective focusing and clever framing both to heighten the suspense and to highlight subtle jokes. What really blew me away, however, was the model train chase at the climax of the film. Here Feathers McGraw tries to escape capture by hopping on the toy train that runs through Wallace's house; Gromit chases after him, and a series of high-speed gags and action set-pieces unfurl faster than your eyes can keep up. A Grand Day Out may have laid the groundwork for the thematic side of the series, but Trousers establishes Park's technical style.
A Close Shave arrived in 1995 as the culmination of everything Park and Aardman Animation had established in the series thus far. The story is tight, if a little more childish, and the animation is as fluid as ever. Here, Wallace falls into a familiar bit o' trouble: while working at one of his home-spun jobs (this time it's window cleaning) he naïvely trusts a pretty face without giving her the proper vetting from Gromit. This time it's a wool shop owner, Wendolene, and her brutish dog Preston. Gromit, once again, discovers that there's something sinister going on and finds that Preston is involved in a massive sheep rustling ring. The story isn't nearly as unpredictable as Trousers, but it's still a solid execution easily glossed over by Park's technical proficiency.
This third installment is bright, colorful, and beautifully filmed. Park really out-does himself here with amazing animation, including some pretty impressive bubble and water effects, and a large cast consisting mainly of sheep. Both Trousers and Shave won Academy Awards for their efforts, and they remain the best in the set.
The newest short, released last year, is largely the reason for this jumbo release (that and the Blu-ray release of the entire series). A Matter of Loaf and Death is the first time we've heard from these two since their foray into that feature-length, big budget, Dreamworks film. The mentality that comes with the feature-length stage of storytelling still lingers as the style and pace of this film feels defined by the high-gloss perfection of Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Park's switch over to digital cameras helps, of course. The colors are vibrant, the character animation is the best of all the shorts, and the whole film has a much needed sense of urgency. Loaf and Death feels like it should be a feature-length film, or at least a little longer than the standard 30-minute runtime.
The story plays out similar to A Close Shave: Wallace falls in love with a girl, the girl turns out to be evil in some way, and if Gromit could only talk this whole thing would be over a lot quicker. Thankfully he's stuck playing "canine Buster Keaton" and he can't rat out Ms. Bakewell—who feels like Kathy Bates's character from Misery. There are some excellent sequences in the film: Gromit infiltrates Bakewell's home and discovers a room full of mannequins numbered for each baker she's killed; a montage of parodies chronicling Wallace's escalating relationship with the Bake-o-Lite girl; and any scene involving Wallace's increasingly complex Rube Goldberg machines. Despite these great scenes, the short still falls, well, short. It's quite enjoyable, but it almost moves too fast. Then again, maybe I just missed these guys so much that I was sorry to see it end.
Each film is featured on its own disc and packed in a single DVD case with flippers. The whole thing comes in a cardboard slipcase with a 3D bas-relief of Wallace and Gromit's heads. As you can probably guess, the video and audio quality on these films increases with each release. A Grand Day Out looks about as good as one of those old MTV claymation commercials, and the sound is a little on the soft side. Still, with Trousers things dramatically improve; there's just a touch of grain and flat coloration. The iconic theme by series composer Julian Nott is fully realized and balanced by the second film. Shave looks and sounds even better, with a much cleaner transfer and rich colors. This latest installment, of course, comes with all the benefits that digital technology provides, including a slew of post-production effects and a great score. Really, though, these are about as good as any of these films can look in standard definition. All four films are presented in standard full frame, despite IMDb telling me Loaf and Death was filmed in widescreen.
On to the special features, just about all of which are from previous DVD releases. Each film gets a commentary track by Nick Park, with Loaf and Death also featuring comments by editor David McCormick. Each disc also has a making-of featurette of varying degrees of depth. "The Amazing Adventures of Wallace and Gromit," on A Grand Day Out is a 15-minute video made around the series 10 year anniversary, and shows some of Park's early sketches for the characters (check out Wallace's creepy mustache). "Inside the Wrong Trousers" is a 25-minute making-of video released around the time of the second film's debut in 1993. It's really cool to see a bit of footage of Peter Sallis talking, since he'll forever be associated with Wallace's toothy grin. "How It Was Done," on Shave, is a much briefer featurette compared to the rest (it's only around five minutes and is practically silent). Lastly, "How They Donut" is a great look at how the production changed with the introduction of digital cameras. It runs over 20 minutes.
Across the first three discs are a collection of ten "Cracking Contraptions" shorts. Each short runs just a couple minutes, and features Wallace trying out one of his new inventions. They start to get a little predictable after a while, but they're still fun. The fourth disc, Loaf and Death, is void of any contraptions, but it does have a bonus episode of Shaun the Sheep, an Aardman Animation series that got its title character from A Close Shave. There's also a demo for a new Wallace and Gromit video game, but being that it's PC-only, I have no clue if it's any good.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
These films are fantastic, and these DVDs are packed with enough special features to be worth picking up, but holy cow did HIT Entertainment and Lions Gate set these things up in the worst way possible. Ignoring the fact that these four 30-minute films could have been lumped onto just two discs, the sheer amount of non-skippable trailers and promotions at the beginning of each disc makes getting to the films a five-minute ordeal.
First you have to wade through a smattering of warning screens. Then you have to skip, individually, through a handful of previews for upcoming releases. Then you have to skip through another set of things that are already released. Then you get to see this animated screen telling you about a glorified "Play All" button, in case you have kids who just want to see everything at once. Forget the fact that by now your children are probably tearing the house to bits because they had to sit through so many stinking previews just to get here.
If there's any flaw in this set, it's the terrible disc setup by Lions Gate. Come on, man.
The Wallace and Gromit franchise is a classic, and A Matter of Loaf and Death proves the series still has legs. If you don't own any of these shorts on a previously released DVD, you have absolutely no reason not to pick this up. Alternatively, if you do already have them, then at least seek out the single disc edition of Loaf and Death. It may not meet the gold standard set by The Wrong Trousers, but it's still a perfect fit in the franchise.
Cracking toast, indeed.
Not guilty! I'd go to the moon for these.
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