Chief Justice Michael Stailey also prefers Wensleydale.
"Don't worry, Gromit! Everything's under control!"—Wallace
Continuing the storied, noble tradition of fictional pets who are infinitely more intelligent than their masters—Snoopy & Charlie Brown, Garfield & Jon, Spencer & Heidi—Wallace and Gromit have cemented themselves in the hearts and minds of fans around the world. Literally. Translated into more than 20 languages, their beloved short films and recent feature-length motion picture—Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (not included here)—have been watched, rewatched, and talked about at length by fans and critics alike. In fact, Verdict has no less than three reviews of the previous Wallace and Gromit collections by Retired Chief Justice Mike Jackson, Appellate Judge Mac McEntire, and Retired Judge Thomas Bigboy, so I won't belabor my critique. Needless to say, their latest adventure brings our heroes into the digital age and they look bloody brilliant!
Facts of the Case
This release collects Wallace and Gromit's first three short films, plus their most recent made-for-TV adventure…
A Grand Day Out (1989, 24 min)
The Wrong Trousers (1993, 30 min)
A Close Shave (1995, 30 min)
A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008, 30 min)
I was first exposed to Nick Park's brilliant A Grand Day Out through Spike and Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation in 1990, America's first introduction to the charming duo of Wallace the absentminded inventor and his genius-intellect faithful companion Gromit. From that moment on, I was hooked. My passion for stop motion animation had just found a new hero.
Wallace & Gromit found life in creator Nick Park's sketch books from an early age. Part stereotypical northerner, part Nick's own father, Wallace grew out of his mustached stocky appearance and settled on his present form in fairly short order. Gromit started life as a cat and made several evolutions before arriving at the look he has today. In fact, when Nick began work on this film in 1983, the very first screen test had Gromit looking like a big old wolf hound. A labor of love, he continued his work at National Film and Television School but ran out of money and missed his deadline. It wasn't until he picked up a job at Aardman Animations that he was able to finish the film.
Filled with expressive characters, brilliant sight gags, and detailed sets, what I love most about the film is that we don't get bogged down by the absurdity of it all. Wallace & Gromit are like The Little Rascals, limited only by the power of their own imaginations. We don't care that Gromit can read and weld metal but not speak; the logistics of building a rocket in basement with a staggering depth of foundation; the lack of physics needed to allow them to walk and breathe on the surface of the moon without space suits (while a soccer ball cannot) or traverse the vacuum of space with no cabin pressure. We're more interested in Wallace being able to grab crackers from the kitchen and make it back to the ship before it takes off, the sheer volume of set detail inside the rocket, and the potential threat posed by a sentient vending machine (an ancestor of Wall-E?) who polices the moon and harbors dreams of skiing the Alps.
Sure the technicality of the film is superb, but the real genius of Nick Park and his Aardman compatriots is in getting us to love these characters. From the principal heroes to the mice in their basement, we're invested in this adventure from the very beginning, despite the fact that only one character has any dialogue. In 24 minutes we get a complete adventure with a main story and equally enchanting subplot, both leaving us with an uncontrollable grin. What more can you ask for?
Apparently quite a bit, as our love for Wallace & Gromit was rewarded with three more short films and a feature-length motion picture, each successive adventure raising the stakes, size, and scope of the film that preceded it. A Grand Day Out was a straight out comedy piece, but in The Wrong Trousers Nick tapped into his love of Hitchcockian thrillers, and everything changed. With fewer sight gags and a more complex story structure, Trousers puts Gromit center stage, courtesy of an exceptionally conceived and executed script with three times the character development and a masterful final act chase. Despite all of the great work Nick and company have done with these characters, this short remains my favorite of the series.
A Close Shave follows the new formula, with the sights gags now used to forward the plot rather than just generate laughs, and story elements planted early on harvested to great reward later in the film. More twists, more turns, and more drama should have topped Trousers, but the growing cast bogs down its effectiveness. Shaun the Sheep provides that childlike innocence which serves as both a noble strength and an achilles heel, but ultimately distracts from what worked best previous film, namely Gromit vs. the villain. Wallace was our singular innocent then. Here we have three in Wallace, Shaun, and a victimized Wendolene. Too much. And it's too bad, because Preston deserved all the screen time he received and more. It's still a great film and ranks #2 on my list.
Which brings us to A Matter of Loaf and Death. Damn if this thing doesn't look amazing! The sets are bigger, the contraptions more Rube-Goldberg-esque (just check out that bakery machinery), the sight gags more complex (the romance montage between Wallace and Piella brilliantly juxtaposed with Gromit's actions in the kitchen), in-jokes and pop culture references a plenty (watch for homages to Aliens, Ghost, Psycho, and Batman (1966)), and the fluidity of animation infinitely more impressive. Using digital still cameras for the first time, Nick's team gets much more dramatic with their setups and camera angles. Heck, at times, it plays very much like a live-action thriller. But the story is more straightforward than what we've come to expect, with fewer twists and turns, and ultimate less fulfilling. We know how this is going to play out, the fun is seeing how they get us there.
With Lionsgate taking control of the licensing and releasing these film on Blu-ray, how do they look? Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Granted, A Grand Day Out suffers from a spectrum of decent to poor source material, leaving the 1080p far from respectable. But with the benefit of more vibrant colors and increased clarity of detail, you can now spot every fingerprint in the clay, count fibers on the rug in their living room, and watch the basement walls seep with condensation. You're also likely to notice the most subtle of comedic details overlooked during previous DVD viewings. But this can prove to be a double edged sword, easily spotting the specs of dust and debris that appear and disappear from the characters from frame to frame, or exposing yourself to peeks behind the visual effects curtain (at the 5:27 mark on A Close Shave, you can see the wire work used to launch Gromit from the sidecar of Wallace's motorbike into window washing action.) The audio is a bit more consistent, the Dolby 5.1 Surround takes advantage of filling the sound field with Julian Nott's increasingly terrific scoring and ambient effects on Close Shave and Loaf and Death. There's not a whole to be done to significantly improve Grand Day or Wrong Trousers. I also experienced some weird swallowing of dialogue various points in the two later films. Whether that's an encoding issue or my own receiver, I can't say for sure. Still, flaws and all, I'll take the Blu-ray upgrade without hesitation.
As gravy, we get a wealth of bonus material!
• Inside The Wrong Trousers (1993, 25 min)
• A Close Shave: How They Did It (1996, 5 min)
• The Amazing World of Wallace and Gromit (1999, 16 min)
Cracking Contraptions (2002, 26 min)
Shaun the Sheep in "Off the Baa!" (2007, 7 min)
PC only Game Demo for Wallace and Gromit's Grand Adventures
Nick Park stands shoulder to shoulder with Walt Disney's nine old men, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, Henry Selick and Ray Harryhausen, The Fleischer Brothers and Don Bluth, John Kricfalusi and the John Lasseter. Creating characters who live on in the hearts and minds of an audience is one of the greatest achievements of any animator. Wallace and Gromit are treasures and this collection will enable us to relive their adventures over and over again. Here's hoping there are more where these came from.
Not guilty. It's like no cheese I've ever tasted…
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, A Grand Day Out
Perp Profile, A Grand Day Out
Distinguishing Marks, A Grand Day Out
Scales of Justice, The Wrong Trousers
Perp Profile, The Wrong Trousers
Distinguishing Marks, The Wrong Trousers
Scales of Justice, A Close Shave
Perp Profile, A Close Shave
Distinguishing Marks, A Close Shave
Scales of Justice, A Matter Of Loaf And Death
Perp Profile, A Matter Of Loaf And Death
Distinguishing Marks, A Matter Of Loaf And Death
Review content copyright © 2009 Michael Stailey; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.