Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of TIFF’s winter film series Magic Motion: The Art of Stop-Motion Animation. For more information, visit tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
The intrepid duo of Wallace and Gromit made their debut in 1989 with the animated short “A Grand Day Out,” which first appeared on the film festival circuit, then found its way to the BBC for a Christmas Day showing. Creator Nick Park had begun work on the stop-motion short in 1982 while at university, and continued working on it after landing a job with Aardman Animation. All told, “A Grand Day Out” took seven years to complete, and was a solid success, earning fans around the globe, as well as a BAFTA for Best Animation and an Academy Award nomination for best short subject. “A Grand Day Out” lost the Oscar to “Creature Comforts,” another Aardman Animation stop-motion short and also created by Nick Park.
. . . if the good old days had existed the way we wish they had, they would have looked just like the world of Wallace and Gromit.
Wallace is a mild-mannered Brit with a penchant for cheese and a talent for inventing complicated yet charming contraptions. His silent partner is Gromit, an intelligent and loyal beagle who gets Wallace out of more scrapes than he ever realizes he’s been in. Though their popularity has dwindled somewhat since their heyday in the 1990s and 2000s, Wallace and Gromit remain favorites, especially in the U.K. They are less famous in the U.S., though they really shouldn’t be: one of our most popular animated shows, Family Guy, started out as the cartoon duo of Larry and Steve, basically American versions of Wallace and Gromit.
Since 1989, the pair have appeared in four shorts and a feature-length film. In 2001, The Incredible Adventures of Wallace and Gromit, a home video compilation of the first three Wallace and Gromit shorts, was released. Included are “A Grand Day Out,” “The Wrong Trousers,” and “A Close Shave.”
In “A Grand Day Out,” Wallace has discovered that there is no cheese in the house. And on a bank holiday, no less! Strapped for options, Wallace decides to build his own rocket and fly straight to the moon, which, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson will tell you, is entirely made of cheese. Though light on plot, “A Grand Day Out” features some delightful Looney Tunes style charm, especially with the strange alien moon-creature that looks just like a cooker (or “stove,” for us Yanks).
“The Wrong Trousers” provides hilarious and sharp satire, with scenes that are often as enervating as the old Hollywood films they skewer.
“The Wrong Trousers” was the second Wallace and Gromit short, released in 1993. Featuring a far more complicated plot — it’s essentially a Hitchcockian mystery with heavy film noir overtones — “The Wrong Trousers” is arguably the most successful and entertaining of the Wallace and Gromit films. In the film, Wallace presents his pal Gromit with a pair of Techno Trousers, cast-off robotic pants from NASA. Unfortunately, he only acquired these so they would walk Gromit for him; it seems Wallace is growing a little tired of his old chum.
Equally frustrating for Gromit is Wallace’s decision to rent out his room for some extra cash. The new tenant, a silent, staring penguin named Feathers McGraw, is more than a little creepy, but the clueless Wallace doesn’t realize. Feathers is also a master of disguise: a single red glove on his head and — presto-chango! — he becomes a chicken, one whose photo is plastered all over town on wanted posters.
Gromit discovers soon enough that the criminal mastermind was no chicken, nor was he evil manifest — he was Feathers McGraw. A series of spectacular events surrounding suction shoes, enormous diamonds and the Techno Trousers ensues. “The Wrong Trousers” provides hilarious and sharp satire, with scenes that are often as enervating as the old Hollywood films they skewer.
If the stop-motion plasticine animation of “A Grand Day Out” was a bit primitive, “The Wrong Trousers” proved just how gorgeous and effective stop-motion could be. Charming in its old-fashioned aesthetic — sometimes the fingerprints of the artists can still be seen on characters’ faces — it’s also surprisingly versatile. A chase scene that takes place on a toy train set is particularly well done, as are several of the more dramatic poses that our flightless villain takes.
The third short is the 1995 “A Close Shave,” known two decades later as the film that would introduce the beloved Shaun the Sheep. The stop-motion technique in this film is even more impressive than the prior shorts. “A Close Shave” opens with one of the most elaborate inventions of the series, a contraption that dresses Wallace and makes him breakfast. There’s a little problem, though: the porridge shooter goes rogue and tries to take Wallace out. There is another, equally complicated system that gets Wallace ready for work. One look at “A Close Shave” and you know that Gru of the Despicable Me series can surely count Wallace as one of his influences.
There is an undeniable charm in the old-fashioned 1950s visual and cultural aesthetic used in these Wallace and Gromit shorts, but that charm would be replaced with cynicism after a while, resulting in “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” released in 2008 and not included in The Incredible Adventures of Wallace and Gromit. Fortunately, the three shorts in The Incredible Adventures of Wallace and Gromit are not only appealing in their dedication to timeless humor, but unquestionably the best examples of Nick Park’s work. The soft, pliable look of Park’s stop-motion melds seamlessly with his storytelling, a reflection of a gentle, inclusive kind of world that, in reality, probably never existed. But if the good old days had existed the way we wish they had, they would have looked just like the world of Wallace and Gromit.
Full of gentle, old-fashioned humor and keen satire, the three short films in The Incredible Adventures of Wallace and Gromit are among the best examples of Nick Park's stellar stop-motion animation work.