The Wallace and Gromit short films are the most charming, inventive and completely silly things I've seen in many years and I'm glad they're available here in the States on DVD. The genius behind these two chums is a British animator named Nick Park (working for Aardman Productions), who had earlier done an award-winning short, "Creature Comforts" (animals reflecting on life in a zoo) and some Chevron commercials with talking cars (those I remember).
These shorts are fascinating on several levels. First, there is the sheer technical creativity and ingenuity shown. This is claymation (like the ancient Gumby or Davy and Goliath shows but infinitely more clever), although plasticine is used nowadays rather than actual clay. The tiny models of sitting rooms, houses, trucks and characters themselves are amazing in their detail. Everything looks very British as well, deliberately so. (When our heroes build a moon rocket, the interior has flowered wallpaper and little framed pictures hanging here and there.) I particularly like the way you can often see the animator's fingerprints on the characters... I don't know why, but this is just
Claymation (like Ray Harryhausen-style model work) is way out of favor because it is so time-consuming but frankly, I prefer it to the CGI which has taken over and which I find tiresome. Claymation figures seem to have weight and solidity, while CGI characters always seem like insubstantial balloon shapes (but then I'm old-fashioned in my tastes, anyway).
Aside from the appeal which the animating process itself inherently has, the shorts are hilarious in their whacky storytelling. Wallace is a gentle, easygoing (okay, dull actually) Englishman who runs a series of self-owned businesses (window-cleaning, pest control). His main joy in life is inventing completely impractical elaborate gadgets that inevitably remind you of Rube Goldberg at his best, but close behind that is his love of a good bit of cheese and crackers with his tea. Wensleydale is a particular favorite.
Wallace's dog Gromit is one of the more endearing creations of recent films. Although he cannot speak and does walk on all fours, Gromit is otherwise of human-level intelligence (we see him in an armchair reading ELECTRONICS FOR DOGS or sitting up in bed knitting late at night). I never thought I'd say this about anyone, but he has the most expressive brow ledge in cinema. Gromit reacts to the latest indignity from Wallace by raising or wrinklng his brow in a way that lets you know exactly how he feels. He is also one of the most patiently long-suffering of characters as he puts up with Wallace's newest enthusiasm and usually has to bail them both out of improbable jams.
Everything from the cheerful theme song to the sound effects to the little visual gags tucked away in the background works perfectly. There were three Wallace and Gromit 20-minute films, some shorter bits about "Cracking Contraptions" and the more recent full-length CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT. We can only pray that there will be more to come but, even if Nick Park moves on from these particular characters, keep an eye out for anything with his name on it.
(Jun 13, 2006)
This was the first out of the Wallace and Gromit shorts, and it definitely has the weakest story of the three. It's also quite surrealistic as many of the events don't really make sense when analyzed (but that's quite all right, innit?)
We start with our two heroes sitting up with stacks of travel brochures and guide books, trying to decide where to go on the bank holiday (being a Yank, I had to look that phrase up). Gromit is nodding off when Wallace decides a nice bit of tea would perk them up. As he assembles the tray with its teapot, saucers and cups and a stack of crackers (from a cupboard filled with nothing but packages of crackers), he finds to his dismay that they are completely out of cheese. And the corner shop will be closed. Well then, that settles the goal of their day trip, they will go somewhere known for its cheeses. And then they both look up out the window into the night sky as Wallace says in all seriousness, "Everybody knows the moon's made of cheese..."
So, down to the basement, where Wallace designs his own moon rocket and constructs it with the help of Gromit (who is able to arc weld quite well for a self-taught dog). The sophisticated cutting-edge nature of the rocket is shown by the fact it seems made mostly of wood, that Wallace paints its exterior a lovely red with a brush and that ignition is achieved by lighting a fuse and then hurrying up into the cabin. The ship takes off successfully (the mice in the cellar gather to watch the launch, all whipping on sunglasses at the right moment) and our heroes are on their way.
Never mind what those Apollo landings showed, NASA must have chosen the wrong areas for their missions. Wallace and Gromit show us that the moon not only has Earth-normal gravity and breathable air, but it is in fact made out of cheese. (See?) Wallace slices off some chunks quite easily and settles down for a picnic with his best friend. "It's not like anything I've ever tasted", he says of the Moon cheese with characteristic understatement.
Then the Machine turns up.
I have given up trying to explain what this thing is, what it's doing on the Moon and who created it. It's just there. Picture a small stove that you have to put 10p in to get a certtain amount of gas to cook with. (I only know about the postwar British practice of coin-operated household appliance from reading Len Deighton's spy thrillers like THE IPCRESS FILE.) Reasonable enough so far, but the darn thing is sentient and mobile, scooting around on three small wheels. It also has jointed metal arms which end in white Mickey Mouse-style gloved hands. The Machine spots the rocket from Earth and immediately starts to write citations for shoddy worksmanship, dripping oil and other violations of lunar law. Then it sees Wallace placidly chomping on bits of the Moon itself! The Machine grimly opens its front drawer, removes a large billy club which it smacks against one palm menacingly and then wheels toward the Earthling interlopers.
Without giving too much away, we soon find that the Machine is easily distracted by a travel brochure which Wallace brought along and that it is entranced by a little black & white daydream of itself skiing happily down a mountainside (wearing a scarf, no less). Everything ends well after some suspenseful moments. The story has a pleasant, dreamlike quality to it and I really shouldn't try to figure it out too much. It's worth noting, though, that although each short has a threat in it of some sort, the Moon Machine is less sinister and scheming than the robot dog of "A Close Shave" or the larcenous penguin of "The Wrong Trousers."
*I'm going by the date on my copy of the DVD itself. Nick Park reportedly started working on "A Grand Day Out" in 1982 and finished it in 1989; I've seen various dates given for the shorts.