Groucho and Harpo, Penn & Teller, Jay and Silent Bob, Homer and Maggie Simpson, and even, to some extent Charlie Brown and Snoopy demonstrate the tradition of odd-coupling the chatty with the silent to comic effect. Anglophiles and animation buffs would hasten to add another classic pair to the list: the naive, cheese-loving Englishman named Wallace (wonderfully voiced by comedy veteran Peter Sallis) and his intelligent, skeptical dog Gromit. In a series of award-winning films by "Claymation" animator Nick Park and his Aardman Animations studio, Wallace and Gromit have delighted audiences since 1989.
Amateur inventors, Wallace and Gromit have outfitted their flat at 62 West Wallaby Street with Rube Goldbergian automation, like machinery that slides the master out of bed and to his breakfast table, plopping a shirt, tie, and sweater vest onto his torso. A motif of the pair reading newspapers and books prefigures their invevitable ventures out of the house, and provides exposition as needed when the stories get a bit more complicated. The principal charm of the series comes from the loving warmth of the leading characters ("acted" with distinctive touches like Wallace's overbite and Gromit's frequently furrowed brow) and the comic disruption of their inviting British gentility, best represented by a nice sit in the living room with some cheese and crackers.
The adventures that happily disturb the slippers-and-newspaper routine emerge as surprising crosses of science-fiction comedy and the thrills and spills of Hitchcock, especially in the sly Bernard Herrman-esque scoring of Julian Nott. What's most impressive--and magical--about Park's work is how convincingly it all plays, despite being patently unrealistic in its form and absurd in its content. One keeps forgetting it was all painstakingly molded, frame by frame, for still images that take on a full-motion imitation of life. The Claymation artistry of the Aardman team is peerless, and only gets more ambitious with each successive film.
"A Grand Day Out" (1989; 24m) started it all, as Wallace and Gromit take a trip to the moon in search of exotic cheese. After building a spaceship humorously wallpapered like their home—and overcoming the launch crisis of nearly forgetting the crackers—the pair arrive at their destination and go on their own cheese-tasting on the lunar surface. Unwittingly, they're followed by a walking stove turned automated patrol unit, which tickets their rocket and threatens to make their return trip impossible. The patrol unit's crazy dreamlife and humanoid postures and gestures are the highlight of this outing, but "A Grand Day Out" effectively establishes the Wallace and Gromit characters with Park's animation evincing a charmingly homemade feel.
"The Wrong Trousers" (1993; 31m), for my money, is the best of the bunch. This Oscar-winning short gets points for being even weirder than its predecessor. For Gromit's birthday, Wallace has purchased a pair of ex-NASA "techno-trousers" that are "perfect for 'walkies.'" Indeed, much to Gromit's chagrin, the unforgiving robot pants are meant to take him for walks. Ever the engineer, Gromit gets to tinkering; meanwhile, beladen by bills, Wallace takes on a penguin tenant who immediately ingratiates himself with his human host and thus raises the ire of Gromit. Things get even more complicated when the penguin dons a bizarrely funny disguise to continue a crime spree. Park swings for the fences with this one, which includes a beaut of a rain sequence and plenty of action, most notably the memorable toy railroading climax.
"A Close Shave" (1995; 32m) is also an Oscar winner, one that proposes the possibility of romance for bachelor Wallace. Window-washers Wallace and Gromit do a job cleaning the exterior of a wool shop, and when Wallace chats up the owner, Wendolene Ramsbottom (Anne Reid), love is in the air. So is hate, as her evil pet sheep dog Preston decides to frame Gromit for the nefarious misdeeds perpetrated by Preston. The sheep-rustling plot—the semi-logical consequence of a wool shortage—allows Wallace and Gromit's flat to be overrun by a virtual army of (talented) sheep, including Aardman favorite Shaun the Sheep, introduced here. Again, Park devises an action-packed climax, highlighted by the revelation of Preston's true nature.
"A Matter of Loaf and Death" (2008; 31m) is Wallace and Gromit's latest adventure, in which the pair work as bakers. This creates a wrong place, wrong time situation for the duo, since twelve bakers have been mysteriously murdered: good for business, bad for...continued existence on Planet Earth. The crime spree turns out to be the work of serial-killing black widow Piella Bakewell (Sally Lindsay), "the Bake-O-Lite Girl," who intends to complete her baker's dozen by seducing and offing poor old Wallace. As Wallace sucumbs to the Siren call of Piella, her poodle Fluffles may be a true-love match for Gromit, who joins her in an attempt to save his master. A windmill and a hot-air balloon figure into the big finish and its mostly happy ending.
Though Lionsgate's Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Collection isn't entirely complete (the feature The Curse of the Were-Rabbit—owned by a different rights-holder—isn't here), it is very near to a definitive release of Nick Park's W&G short films. A different rights issue affects a bit of "A Close Shave" (which originally, and illicitly, featured the "Happy Birthday" song), but that issue aside, the presentation of the films and selection of bonus features is top notch. The picture quality has never been better on these films: the colorful and detailed transfers winningly reveal every texture in the Claymation. Audio comes through clearly, in a few variations: PCM 5.1, and Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1.
The first three films feature audio commentary by director Nick Park, while "A Matter of Loaf and Death" offers audio commentary by Park and editor David McCormick.
Four featurettes come with a play-all option: "How They Donut: The Making of 'A Matter of Loaf and Death'" (20:20, SD), "'A Close Shave': How It Was Done" (5:04, SD), "Inside 'The Wrong Trousers'" (24:19, SD) and "The Amazing Adventures of Wallace & Gromit" (15:23, SD) The second of these is a special effects reel, the third is an extensive behind-the-scenes look and Wallace & Gromit history highlighting an extensive "backstage" interview with Park, and the fourth is another nice historical look at the work of Aardman on the early Wallace & Gromit shorts.
"How They Donut: The Making of 'A Matter of Loaf and Death'"--the newest of the four featurettes--includes behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Park, executive producer David Sproxton, production manager Richard "Beeky" Beek, supervising animator Merlin Crossingham, director of photography Dave Alex Riddett, camera assistant Ben Stradling, set dresser Helen Javes, and character animators Dug Calder, Loyd Price, Jo Fenton, and Alison Evans.
Scrap Book is a gallery of invention blueprints and production stills, including behind-the-scenes shots.
"Crackling Contraptions" (25:21 with "Play All" option, SD) gathers ten bite-sized Wallace & Gromit webisodes on the theme of inventions.
"Off the Baa!" (7:05, SD) is a bonus episode of Aardman's "Shaun the Sheep."
Lastly, "Game Demo" is a test spin of Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures, but be aware: you need a PC with a Blu-ray DVD-Rom drive to use this feature.
In comparison to the unwieldy four-disc standard-def DVD set, the single-disc Blu-ray collection is especially inviting. With fantastic picture quality and the full complement of extras, The Complete Collection should be irresistible to fans and families.
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