Video Review: Wallace and Gromit
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker

Recognizing On-screen Conventions
When you watch a scary movie, how do you know that the girl really shouldn’t open that next door? How do you know that there is something very unsettling – even creepy – about the guy in the black coat? How do you know that the wise-cracking sidekick will be the next victim? You just know. Years of movie-watching have trained you to understand that particular kinds of music, camera angles, or even character traits tell you certain things.

The same goes for Romantic Comedies, Westerns, Musicals, Science Fiction and any other kind of movie. The modern viewer has become astute in recognizing the conventions that define a genre. However, most remain unaware that they’re sophisticated viewers.

Playing Subtle Jokes
What does this have to do with a trilogy of English animated shorts called Wallace and Gromit? Nick Park’s creation skillfully pays homage to and manipulates the conventions of popular genres. To a media-wizened audience, he communicates sophisticated ideas, plays subtle jokes, and delivers a satisfying viewing experience. While some films rely on the clichs of genre-becoming predictable, sappy, or boring-Park plays with our expectations and gives us an original take on our favorite storytelling conventions.

Nick Park and his Aardman Animations studio create scaled-down sets for the clay characters with a careful eye for detail. Like intricate doll houses, their sets feature clever wallpaper designs, paintings, textures, and colors that convey a comfortable, light-hearted tone. Probably the most notable characteristic of clay animation or “claymation” is that because of its 3-dimensional nature, lighting can add to the dramatic effect. Park and his team sculpt the light as carefully as major Hollywood cinematographers. Check out the scene where Wallace descends to his basement to make plans for the spacecraft (in “A Grand”) or the museum at night (in “Wrong”). Park is not afraid to contrast light and shadow, giving a sense of reality far beyond painted animation.

The Wallace and Gromit series is made up of three Wallace and Gromit adventures: “A Grand Day Out,” “The Wrong Trousers”, and “A Close Shave.” Each film is a half hour in length allowing you to watch them one at a time or rent all three for an enjoyable evening. A DVD version is also available for rental which includes all three stories on one disc.

When Wallace, a connoisseur of fine cheese, runs out of his favorite snack, he invites his loyal dog, Gromit, to accompany him on a mission to the moon. This is, of course, the best place to find an unending supply of cheese, so they build a spaceship and embark on “A Grand Day Out.”

This first Wallace and Gromit adventure introduces the characters as great friends and inventors of surprising ability. Wallace’s quirky British behavior contrasts well against Gromit’s taciturn, but level-headed nature. Like Snoopy, Gromit is active, intelligent and lovable. This unlikely pair excels at inventing elaborate machines that provide specialized services. Most of us would likely ask whether our modern world really needs a mechanized way to pour our porridge; Wallace and Gromit take the assumption for granted.

In “A Grand Day Out,” Park plays with the conventions of the space journey, or science fiction film. Films as divergent as Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” “Contact” (with Jodie Foster), and – to a lesser degree – the Star Trek series all enjoy many of the same characteristics. The characters undergo difficulty in perfecting their modes of travel. They are either earthbound, lost in space, or find that a technical difficulty may maroon them, or even cost them their lives. In their adventures, the characters find extraordinary circumstances and lifeforms that can excite the imagination, but brings appreciation for one’s home or one’s self.

“A Grand Day Out” utilizes many of the space journey genre conventions and visual control, but Nick Park has not yet perfected his craft, as he will in the next two of the series. While his first film is good, compared to his next two, this one pales.

For Gromit’s birthday, Wallace presents him with a pair of “techno-trousers,” mechanical legs which walk by themselves. At the same time, Wallace realizes that his bills are stacking up and he needs to take in a boarder to help make ends meet. He rents a room to a shifty character-a penguin with beady eyes. The penguin sets in motion a plan to steal an enormous diamond by reprogramming Wallace’s techno-trousers.

The jewel (or museum) heist genre is full of very characteristic elements: high-tech gadgets, disguises, “scoping out the joint,” and chase scenes – to name a few. Some of the films that belong to this genre include “Entrapment” with Sean Connery, “The Saint” with Val Kilmer, and Alec Guinness in “The Lavender Hill Mob.” In “The Wrong Trousers,” Park uses the conventions more adroitly than he did in “A Grand Day Out.” He uses the convention as a joke when the penguin pulls the latex glove off his head and suddenly Wallace recognizes him, “Good heavens, it’s you!” He uses them with playful variation when the climactic chase scene happens on a toy train. The music-a meaningful element in any genre-is used with such skill that “The Wrong Trousers” always conveys it’s information perfectly.

In the third adventure, Wallace and Gromit meet Wendolene Ramsbottom, the owner of the local wool shop. Wendolene and her malevolent dog Preston are doing surprisingly well during the national wool shortage. As Wallace falls in love with her pure nature and come-hither beauty, a sheep rustling ring frames Gromit.

In “A Close Shave,” Nick Park exploits many of the conventions we find in the suspense stories: framing the innocent, a seemingly innocent person caught up in crooked activities, a tacked-on romance, and a formidable foe. Park uses his characters to help avoid lazy imitation. One of the protagonists, Wallace, remains clueless to the events that sweep him into danger. As a result, the story does not come across as the same ol’ suspense thriller.

Park never takes the easy way out either in storytelling or in production. The process of animating plasticine is an achievement in itself. Park dazzles us with inventive chases and pushes the envelope of his medium, always seeking a bigger and better finish. The fact that Park’s stories are also wonderfully entertaining with effective structures is icing on the cake. He piles on twist after twist and his endings are never Disney-esque, “happily ever after” resolutions. They are happy and comfortable, but with a tinge of comic irony. Even in his endings, he gives us a sense of reality we can really relate to.

It’s no wonder that Nick Park has been nominated for 4 Academy Awards and taken home 3 (Close Shave and Wrong Trousers both won Best Animated Short Film Oscars). He represents the top in animated storytelling. It was only a matter of time for Hollywood to come calling and engage his services for a feature-length animated film. In Chicken Run you will find the same playfulness, great storytelling, and engaging characters on a much larger scale. We look forward to Wallace and Gromit’s first feature film which is also in the works.



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