*Initially written for the Autumn & Winter 2021/2022 issue of UnDividing Lines*
A Grand Day Out
I adore animation. Whether done by shading Cels, on the computer or using puppets, I am hooked. But the most love is reserved for stop-motion. It takes an absurd amount of time and patience to bring a world to life through these means, and a prime example of this is British animator Nick Park. The first project to feature his most iconic duo, lovable goofball Wallace and his trusty dog Gromit, began production in 1982 whilst Park was still in college. It would take 7 years and several monetary assists from industry professionals before A Grand Day Out finally made it onto television sets across the UK and, finally, the world.
The plot sees the plasticine man and his companion embarking on a holiday to The Moon because it’s made of cheese, which they adore. This involves building a rocket ship in their basement and staying out of the clutches of a lunar robot that yearns to come to Earth. The simplicity of the plot and models provide a “homemade” feeling that is primed for feelings of nostalgia. At half an hour in length, this short manages to feel leisurely without ever feeling boring. The primary focus is always on the story and the animation.
The craftsmanship continues to astound. Wallace’s shoes and Gromits nose are both black plastic, as opposed to plasticine, which gives them a shine whilst the flames made of paper give a better impression of free-flowing gas than a solid ever could. Meanwhile, the backgrounds and several shots of the rocket are beautifully coloured pencil drawings, like some low-budget Ralph McQuarrie art. This allows for a large scale whilst also providing that “homely” aesthetic.
All three of the characters are inherently likable. Wallace is the only character with dialogue, which is provided by the always warm voice of the late Peter Sallis. His gentle voice is matched well with the mannerisms of the character, like his signature handshaking. Gromit’s communication is all in the eyebrows and there isn’t a single point where his feelings are unclear. His primary emotion is one of exacerbation with the hapless Wallace but it’s never malicious, only ever out of love. The robot is portrayed solely through exaggerated movement. It’s like watching an old Charlie Chaplin sketch, or a pantomime, and those feel homely too.
The Wrong Trousers
Created in less time than its predecessor, The Wrong Trousers is a more high-end production. The character designs are more refined with cleaner edges, as is the audio. There are also several more locations than just The Sitting Room, The Basement, and The Moon. Here there is an entire house, a park, several streets, and a museum but this doesn’t make the short film feel like a large-scale production. A lot of the “homely” feel is maintained through backgrounds and never overcrowding the sets, as well as the emotional core of the plot.
Wallace is renting his spare room to a penguin named Feathers McGraw who turns out to be a criminal intent on stealing a large diamond from the local museum. During his scheme, Feathers isolates Gromit from his friend and steals the titular electronic trousers which can walk on any service. The tone of The Wrong Trousers is modeled after classic melodramatic thrillers like “Dial M for Murder” and does the genre a great justice. Without ever uttering a single sound, Feathers is one of the most terrifying villains ever put to screen. His complete silence assists in his mysterious anonymity, but the beady black eyes are also doing a lot of work. The choice to give him these eyes has robbed him of any humanity.
The plot’s tension is heightened by Julian Nott’s superb score which is a work of art in its own right. His work is featured in every Wallace and Gromit feature but it is particularly good here. It does well during the quiet moments, like Gromit running away from home, but it shines during the climactic face-off. This final setpiece is a classic race across a train rooftop to capture the villain, but the train is only a miniature. Feathers is wedged into the train cabin whilst Gromit is clinging desperately around one of the carriages. Wallace is…being Wallace. As the chase continues, the train becomes detached and Gromit must lay tracks ahead of himself at a rapid pace. To convey this much speed through stop-motion is an astounding feat, even if it does raise several questions about the layout of their house.
A Close Shave
For a long time, this was the last of the Wallace and Gromit shorts, but it was the first to do many things. It was the first to be presented in 16:9 instead of 4:3 which was the standard for all televisions until the 1990s, which mirrors its more cinematic plotline. It’s the first time that the duo are shown to have jobs, specifically as window cleaners, having previously been an inventor and a dog. It’s the first time that Wallace is given a romantic interest in the form of wool shop owner Wendoline voiced by the amazing Anne Reid. Lastly, this is the first time that a character will receive their own spin-off show, in the form of Shaun the Sheep which began airing in 2007.
This time, the lads find themselves in the care of an escaped lamb which Wallace names Shaun, throwing them into a sinister plot featuring wool and canned dog food. This short perfectly evokes the feeling of classic Horror B-Movies in the story, tone, and score. Much like Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), the Wallace and Gromit shorts take the opportunity to dabble in different genres, and this allows them to stay fresh.
What A Close Shave does particularly well is comedy. There’s comedy across all these shorts and it always lands, but the humour here is particularly good. Gromit’s continued obliteration of the fourth wall and the running gag about porridge are magnificent. There’s also a lovely parody of the initiation sequence from classic TV Show Thunderbirds that hits that feeling of childhood nostalgia every time. That really sums up these first 3 shorts perfectly – nostalgic.
A Matter of Loaf and Death
In the 13 years between the last short and this one, Aardman Animation Studios had exploded in popularity. Their first feature-length films Chicken Run and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit were both smash hits with audiences, while Flushed Away was less popular but gained a small following. This learned experience is present in A Matter of Loaf and Death. It feels like the larger world shown in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit than the couple of streets from the original shorts, but that warmth and love are still there.
Wallace and Gromit now run a successful bakery, but their job security and lives are threatened by the arrival of Wallace’s new love interest Piella, and Gromit’s first love interest: a poodle named Fluffles. The closer these lovebirds become, the more Gromit unearths about a sinister spree of baker-specific murders. It isn’t difficult to decipher who the murderer is and, considering the runtime, that’s a good thing. It allows for the suspense to build from almost the very beginning of the plot and allows sympathy for Gromit to begin in earnest. Gromit is the real hero of this tale, although he usually is.
This installment is a beautifully written love letter to the fans. Nick Park has said that he made this one primarily for the British fans who helped launch his career, and that’s clear to see. Gromit owns a Bagpuss plush toy, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Feathers McGraw’s wanted poster and the story itself would fit right in with the writings of Agatha Christie. There are also several not-so-subtle references to pop culture, including a parody of the clay-moulding scene from Ghost and the attempt to get rid of a bomb ripped straight from Batman: The Movie. Often references like this can feel out of place, like an attempt to capitalise on what’s popular, but that isn’t the case here. They come across as fun Easter Eggs for the viewer instead of stand-out declarations that they know about that thing you like.
This would not be the duo’s final outing. They appeared in educational TV Show Wallace and Gromit’s World of Invention (which demonstrates exactly what the title suggests), the Telltale video game series Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Adventures, and have made the jump to VR with Wallace and Gromit: The Big Fix-Up. However, if more shorts are made, this would be the last to feature Peter Sallis who passed away in 2017. That alone makes A Matter of Loaf and Death special. Voice actor Ben Whitehead has taken over the role of Wallace, filling the character with as much charm and joy as ever, and future shorts are a possibility according to Nick Park. If 4 was it, that would be a shame, but it wouldn’t be a tragedy.
Wallace, Gromit, and all their pals are a lot like The Muppets – individuals with their own lives. What we see is just what happens when the cameras are rolling and something is comforting about that.