A Man and His Dog
At 62 West Wallaby Street, somewhere in the north of England, lives Wallace, mild-mannered inventor, with his dog, Gromit. Wallace, if not exactly dim, is a rather clueless chap, but Gromit — who favors books like Electronics for Dogs, and Crime and Punishment by Fido Dogstoyevsky — is the brains of the operation anyway. And if Wallace could be said to have feet of clay… well, his feet are clay.
Wallace and Gromit are the creations of British animator Nick Park, who has turned his hapless claymation characters into figures of cult adoration, seemingly without much effort on his own part. Clever yet unassuming, simple enough for kids to enjoy but steeped in a deep, rich knowledge and love of classic film that tickles adults, the three films starring Wallace and Gromit are among the finest and most fun animated shorts ever made.
In 1989, A Grand Day Out introduced the pair in a tale of high adventure, do-it-yourself ingenuity, and cheese. Wallace (the voice of Peter Sallis), who likes a nice bit of Gorgonzola with his tea, hits upon the ideal vacation spot for himself and Gromit (who doesn’t speak) when Cheese Holidays magazine fails to offer any inspiration: the Moon, which everyone knows is made of that lovely dairy product. He quickly draws up his plans for building a rocketship in the basement, with the gung-ho-ness of a simple, ordinary person who has no idea that what he proposes is impossible and so therefore has nothing to deter him from actually achieving it (a theme that will recur in Park’s Chicken Run).
Part Jules Verne, part Chuck Jones, A Grand Day Out gives Wallace and Gromit a foil in the strange little whatchamathingie coin-op machine they encounter on the Moon that, in the same way that Gromit expresses a full range of emotions with his eyes (his lack of a mouth does give him a perpetually worried look, though), speaks volumes only with its arms and hands, asserting exasperation at the intruders swiping stalagmites of cheese from its turf, and determination to follow them home to Earth so the machine can indulge its fantasies of downhill skiing. Yes, skiing.
A Grand Day Out is cute and highly amusing but slight, which sounds like a silly thing to say about a cartoon in which the Moon is in fact made of cheese. What else would it be but slight? But its sequels, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave — which feature, respectively, a diamond thief who happens to be a penguin, and a naked sheep who covers up with a sweater made from his own wool — demonstrate how substantial and even profound toons can be without ever sacrificing lightheartedness. Both films won well-deserved Oscars for Best Animated Short, in 1993 and 1995.
The Wrong Trousers is a positively Hitchcockian gem that tucks a lot of story into its short running time. For Gromit’s birthday, Wallace gives him “ex-NASA” TechnoTrousers, giant robotic pants that are “fantastic for walkies,” hardly a dog’s ideal present. Gromit starts feeling further neglected when financial woes lead Wallace to let out their spare room, and the new tenant, an ominously silent penguin whom Gromit can tell is up to no good, edges his way in to Wallace’s good graces, edging out Gromit. The penguin, aka wanted burglar Feathers McGraw, is in fact planning to hijack the TechnoTrousers for use in a diamond heist. Gromit is on the case, determined to stop him. Atmospheric music, by Julian Nott (who scored all three films) and sound effects accompany Park’s decidedly noirish direction, full of up angles, stark shadows, silhouettes, rain, and lightning.
A Close Shave also owes much to classic noir (each of the films nod as well to more recent classics, like The Terminator, Aliens, and Batman) with its story of romance and sheep rustling. Wool-store proprietor Wendolene (the voice of Anne Reid) catches Wallace’s shy eye, but she has a secret that threatens to nip their incipient romance in the bud. Could it have something to do with the fact that her store is well-stocked in spite of the wool rationing in effect? And her bulldog, Preston, makes Gromit’s nose for trouble twitch. Meanwhile, 62 West Wallaby Street has been invaded by a stray sheep. Can there be a connection between it all? Of course there can.
The coziness of all three films make them irresistibly charming. But Park’s quiet obsession with things quintessentially British — garden gnomes, knitting, tea, toast — masks a deeper unease the films evince. Apart from an “animals with power tools” motif that would likely give George Orwell pause, there’s an undercurrent of wariness toward technology running through each of the films, particularly the latter two (and this shows up in Chicken Run, too). Technology in the barely capable hands of Wallace is frightening enough — his inventions, like his Knit-O-Matic, invariably go wrong, and he’s just barely able to command the TechnoTrousers — but it’s technology in the wrong hands that seems to worry Park. The machines themselves may be value-neutral, but we must be careful to keep them from the likes of Feathers McGraw or Preston.
Dark undertones and all, these are, as Wallace himself might say, crackin’ movies.