These days it might seem that Pixar Studios is the New York Yankees of animation, but they were not the first to dominate that part of the industry. In fact there was a period starting in 1989 and up until the mid-2000s where, if you had a short animated film nominated for an award and you were up against Nick Park, you were competing for second place. Park, through the Aardman Animations studio that first hired him, has won four Academy Awards out of six nominations and has collected eight BAFTA awards in his native England. This week at Movie Klub, when the original film fell through due to a technical issue, we took in some of Park’s short films starring his signature characters, Wallace and Gromit.
Three 30-minute films have been packaged as Wallace and Gromit in Three Amazing Adventures, in this order: 1995’s Oscar-winning A Close Shave; 1989’s A Grand Day Out, which was nominated for an Oscar but lost to another Park film; and 1993’s The Wrong Trousers, which also won an Oscar. All three star the cheese-and-crackers-loving inventor Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis), and a clever dog named Gromit who never speaks but somehow manages to communicate even better than his master does. You might say that Gromit is the Brain to Wallace’s Inspector Gadget, but these films are not as broad or ham-handed with their jokes and characters as that cartoon was.
These are stop-motion animated films, created using clay sets and figurines,* but they combine the dry wit of a British live-action sitcom with the crazed slapstick of a Warner Brothers cartoon. Jokes might come from clever book titles (at one point Gromit is reading Crime and Punishment by “Fido Dogstoyevsky”) and then pivot effortlessly to physics-defying sight gags. Simply looking at The Wrong Trousers’ villain, a sinister-looking penguin who pretends that he is a rooster by putting a red rubber glove on his head, was enough to send me into a fit of giggles.
The charm of the slapstick, combined with the quintessential Britishness of Wallace, have combined to make these characters sort of international ambassadors for the United Kingdom. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny were created by Americans, and they have become pop-culture representatives of America abroad mainly in the way that they are used to sell American products to foreign cultures, but there is very little about them that is American.** Bugs Bunny wishes he had taken the correct turn at Albuquerque, and that’s about it.
By contrast, Wallace and Gromit live in the smallish British city of Wigan, their preferred snack is British, and their preferred cheese to have with that snack is Wensleydale, an English creation. Wallace’s cool demeanor during a manic sequence such as the climax of The Wrong Trousers is the typical stiff upper lip. Wry jokes such as Gromit reading a newspaper story with the headline “Dog Reads Newspaper” are as British as they come. These characters spread Britishness throughout the world in a way that had never been done by animation; if not for Toy Story’s massive success in the middle of his run, Park might have created the most popular animated characters of the 1990s.
Watching the three films concurrently makes it clear why A Grand Day Out was the non-Oscar-winner among them. It’s a good-enough film and a monumental technical achievement, but it also has some pacing problems and is stingiest of the three with its jokes. There are far too many shots of Wallace grumbling and looking pensive. By contrast, the other two films are masterpieces in short-film pacing, with no scene wasted and every line of dialogue relevant. A Close Shave in particular fits more story and action into its 30 minutes than Surf’s Up did with almost triple the running time.
My favorite aspect of these films was that they never go out of their way to wow you with their technical wizardry. If you’re enough of a film buff to know how stop-motion action is done, then even the simplest shots in these films, such as a scene where Wallace knocks over a pyramid of balls of yarn, will blow your mind. However, if you could care less about those details then these movies will still be the highest class of entertainment, and well worth a viewing. Seriously, these films are on Netflix Instant Watch as of the date of this writing. See them now. You won’t regret it.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*During a guest appearance on The Simpsons, Park (playing himself) joked that “I’m more clay than man now.”
**Excepting the World War II era, of course, where American cartoon characters turned patriotic just like every other film did.