No crackers, Gromit! We’ve forgotten the crackers!
Stop motion animation has been a staple of filmmaking since the very early days. Many early special effects were based on this technology — still frames of models, which are moved painstakingly to give the illusion of movement — before it was applied to entire works as a replacement for cel animation. Early animated works like Gumby or Thunderbirds popularized the medium, but it had something of a low-rent aura for many years. It had a renaissance in the 1980s, in the United States due to the influence of Will Vinton (of “California Raisins” fame) and Henry Selick (early with his work for MTV, later with theatrical features like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Monkeybone), and in Britain with the collected work of Aardman Animation. The company, founded in 1972 by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, produced works for the BBC, and brought Nick Park into their fold while he was still attending university. Park’s first work for the company grew out of a student film project about a man and his dog who build a rocket in their basement to travel to the moon…to get some cheese. These characters were Wallace and Gromit, and this disc collects their three adventures.
A Grand Day Out
Cheese-obsessed inventor Wallace and his long-suffering dog Gromit build a rocket to travel to the moon, because as everyone knows, the moon is made of cheese. Once there, the duo is accosted by a coin-operated robotic oven (don’t ask) that guards the cheese and dreams of coming to Earth to do some skiing.
The Wrong Trousers
For his birthday, Wallace gives Gromit a pair of “techno-trousers” — the lower half of a mechanical robot. However, the expensive invention leaves them cash-strapped. For a few coppers, they let out a spare bedroom to a secretive mute penguin. The penguin endears himself to the daft Wallace, edging Gromit out of his master’s attention. Things don’t seem right to Gromit, and he spies on the penguin, catching him altering the techno-trousers to do his bidding, as well as casing out a museum…
A Close Shave
Wallace and Gromit are now in the window-washing business to make money to pay the bills. Wallace’s latest invention is the “Knit-O-Matic,” which will shear a sheep and output a knitted cardigan. In the course of their window-washing duties, Wallace falls for Wendolene, a woman who owns a yarn store and a sheep farm. She seems to live in fear of her dog, a barrel-chested meanie, as do her sheep for some reason…
I hope, dear reader, that you have already discovered Wallace and Gromit at one point or another. If you have not, I feel I should throw things in your general direction until you agree to give this disc a rental. Animation too often is thought of as a childish medium. In many ways, it is — it’s clean and simple and easy for young minds to grasp. It makes it easy to tell fantastic tales, which are staples of childhood entertainment. However, I don’t think that there’s any reason why adults need to pooh-pooh the medium for those reasons. Kids will love Wallace and Gromit, but why can’t grown-ups like it too? Kids like the fun energy of their capers, but as an adult I appreciate the style and the sly humor (or, since it’s British, I should say its sly humour).
All three shorts are incredibly fun, but my favorite by far is The Wrong Trousers (and from listening to the commentary, it sounds like it’s Nick Park’s favorite too). Many elements of The Wrong Trousers play like a film noir, starting with the titles, which look suspiciously like a Sam Spade mystery. Sinister music plays every time the penguin appears, which is funny because he’s incredibly expressionless and doesn’t look at all scary. The museum robbery has the closest film noir feel, with its sharp angles and shadowy atmosphere. Besides, who wouldn’t be totally amused by a penguin putting a red rubber glove on its head to disguise itself as a chicken? Or a pair of pants that walk around by themselves? Or a twist on the old gag of putting a safe behind a painting…by having the picture be of a piggybank, and a piggybank is hidden in the safe? Or a train chase…on a model train…with the track being laid during the chase? It’s all so incredibly funny that it’s impossible to not love it completely.
This is the second time the Wallace and Gromit shorts have been released on DVD. The first was by Fox while they had the license to release the BBC’s material in the United States. Now, the license is held by Warner Bros. The original release had decent audio and video for the shorts, but few extra features. The Warner Bros. release appears to have the same audio and video, but has rectified the lack of goodies. The three shorts are presented full-frame, which is their original aspect ratio. The transfers are free of digital defects, and exhibit only occasional dust specks or other source problems. Audio is unremarkable stereo, but sounds pleasant enough and suits the material.
For the extras, you get all-new commentaries on each short with Nick Park and other compatriots. It’s terribly fun listening to the very British people talk about their work in very understated tones. A 15-minute featurette, “The Amazing World of Wallace and Gromit” looks at the history of the characters and the fame surrounding them. I particularly enjoyed the look at the Wensleydale cheese factory, which was saved from bankruptcy thanks to a product endorsement by the cheese-loving duo. A “Scrapbook” section gives a series of “interstitials” produced for the BBC featuring the characters, a photo gallery (which are stills from the shorts), and “blueprints” of their inventions. Storyboards are available for a scene each from The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. These are presented side by side with the corresponding scene from the short. A “Behind the Scenes” section presents short featurettes on the making of The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. (The British announcer must be the equivalent of our Trailer Voice Guy, and he’s much more enjoyable to listen to.) Perhaps because they couldn’t think of a better place to put them, six of Nick Park’s early films are included in this section. Two of these are from his teenaged years, while the others are from college. Also included is a trailer for another Aardman film, Robbie the Reindeer: Hooves of Fire, text bios of the production staff, and a textual history of Aardman Animation.
I might add that the only extras here that also appeared on the Fox release are Park’s childhood films and the BBC interstitials, and excerpts from the making-of featurette on The Wrong Trousers.
I have no complaints about the shorts. They’re beyond perfection. I also have no complaints about the DVD, though I should caution those that already have the Fox release that, though there’s more extras here, there’s little reason to run out and replace it. Like any DVD, the real draw is the film itself, or in this case, the three short films. Nothing has changed with those, and unfortunately the extras aren’t quite attractive enough to warrant throwing another wad of cash at a new disc.
Oh, I do have one small complaint about the disc: The menus can be a bit difficult to navigate.
If you’ve never discovered Wallace and Gromit, please please please do yourself a favor and go rent this disc. If you don’t own the original release and are already familiar with this loveable duo, run out and buy this disc immediately. If you already have the original Fox release, you might think twice about buying this one, because (in my opinion at least) the extras don’t quite make an additional purchase necessary.
[Note: After publication of this review, it came to my attention that I missed a couple details. First, there are subtle differences in the video quality between the new Warner disc and the old Fox disc. Based on A-B screenshot comparisons, the Warner version is fuzzier and less distinct; my guess is that the bitrate is lower. I’ve adjusted my video score down five points since this review was first posted. Also, in The Wrong Trousers, one of the music cues has been altered. The Fox DVD, as well as previous VHS and laserdisc releases, had Gromit’s birthday card play the famous “Happy Birthday” song. Apparently, Warner Bros. didn’t want to cough up the licensing fees for it (yes, believe it or not, it’s copyrighted), so there is a generic music piece in its place. Do these new facts change my verdict? The slightly lower quality video is worrisome, but the disc is still recommended for its content. However, those with the Fox DVD have even more reasons to think twice about replacing it. Yes, I’m aware that “even more reasons to think twice” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.]