I do like a bit of gorgonzola.
Wallace is an inventor, living somewhere in England with his dog, Gromit. This duo, created by stop-motion animator Nick Park, started out in a series of short films that, despite their humble beginnings, went on to become award winners and household names. Now, Wallace and Gromit’s first three adventures are re-released on DVD, timed with their first full-length feature’s theatrical debut.
• A Grand Day Out
Deciding where to go on vacation can be tough, especially when you want a cheese-related vacation. Remembering that the moon is made of cheese, Wallace crafts his own spaceship, and he and Gromit are off on their own lunar picnic in no time. What they don’t know is that someone—or something—already calls the moon home, and won’t take kindly to strangers eating it.
• The Wrong Trousers
It’s Gromit’s birthday, and Wallace presents him with a pair of “techno trousers” (ex-NASA!) to make life easier. But financial woes mean the pair will have to rent out a room, and this brings a mysterious penguin to live with them. Wallace hits it off with the paying guest, leaving Gromit to believe he’s no longer needed. When the trousers suddenly malfunction, though, taking Wallace on a wild walk through town, Gromit realizes this penguin has a plan.
• A Close Shave
A pair of criminal sheep thieves has caused a town-wide yarn shortage. That doesn’t mean much to Wallace and Gromit, though, who are cleaning up with their new window washing service. Wallace catches the eye of Wendolene, the local yarn shop owner, and romance starts to blossom. But there’s no love at all between Gromit and Preston, Wendolene’s large, cruel dog. Back at home, a mysterious guest has taken bites out of everything in sight, including Wallace’s precious cheese. Before long, the sheep rustlers’ identities are revealed, chases break out, and it’s up to our heroes to save the day once again.
What are these shorts about? A quirky British guy and his faithful dog. What are they really about? The spirit of invention. There’s a moment early on in A Grand Day Out where Wallace goes down to his basement to work on his blueprints for the spaceship. He draws away, turning over page after page of designs and occasional doodles. This is the character at heart, happy to be creating something new and exciting.
Watching A Grand Day Out for this review, a thought occurred to me—perhaps this is the “origin” of Wallace as an inventor. Before this, there’s nothing to suggest he’s an inventor. When he first goes down into the basement, it’s dark, dusty, and unused. Compare this to later tales such as A Close Shave or the full-length feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit, where the basement is a makeshift science lab, filled with all manner of wondrous gizmos. In those films, Wallace is already an inventor, but in the first one, we see the spirit of invention emerge as it always does. Wallace saw a need—in this case a means to travel to the moon—and he filled it. From then on, Wallace’s inventions fill all manner of household chores. One flip of a switch in the morning gets him out of bed, dresses him, and prepares his breakfast toast. The “techno trousers” are originally intended to accompany Gromit on “walkies.”
There might be some sort of mad genius at work for Wallace to create these magnificent machines, but, more often then not, they don’t work as planned. That’s where Gromit comes in. Whenever a device goes haywire, Gromit is there to save the day by staying calm and employing some quick thinking. Wallace knows this too, as he usually calls out for Gromit’s help during a crisis, even when Gromit isn’t around.
Gromit is a true renaissance dog. He knits, he cooks, he enjoys classical music, and he reads books like “Electonics for Dogs,” “Pluto’s Republic,” and “Crime and Punishment” by Fido Dogstoyevski. Many have wondered why Gromit puts up with Wallace, especially when Wallace has the tendency to put Gromit in dangerous or embarrassing situations. It appears to me that Wallace’s unhinged enthusiasm for inventing has rubbed off on his dog. Gromit operates the spaceship, he figures out how to make the techno trousers walk on walls, and he’s the one who makes the most of bungee cords while window washing.
As the voice of Wallace, Peter Sallis (Uncle of the Bride) provides the character with a bright but sometimes misguided optimism. Wallace is childlike in his mannerisms, gaining the most enjoyment from the simple pleasures in life, such as a warm pair of slippers or a tasty slice of cheese on a cracker. During the few moments when reality comes crashing in on Wallace—such as when he’s in trouble, or when it looks like he and Gromit will be separated forever—Sallis gives the voice the proper amount of heartbreak while still staying true to the character.
Gromit does not speak, but, in his own way, he does have a “voice,” thanks to his expressions and body language. Much credit goes to Nick Park and his team for this. By manipulating just his eyes and brow, the animators showcase a wide variety of emotions on Gromit’s face. Although silent, there’s never any doubt as to what Gromit is thinking or feeling in any given scene. Body language counts here as well. Watch how Gromit’s hands (paws?) are always careful before he handles any object, as if everything around him is fragile. Little details like that in go a long way in establishing Gromit as a genuine character. Strangely, several moviegoers over the years have come away from these films absolutely certain that Gromit had spoken dialogue. The fact that they believed this so much is a testament to Park and his crew for creating so much expression with so little.
What more could be said here? In terms of plot, character, humor, and, yes, even action, these three 30-minute shorts are top notch, and are among the best you’ll ever come across. This is animation at its finest. The picture quality on this disc suits that, with clean transfers for all three shorts, and an active, immersive 2.0 surround track.
For die-hard Wallace and Gromit fans, the real draw here is 2002’s Cracking Contraptions, a collection of minute-long shorts starring the pair. While they’re not much on story, they still feature our heroes at their best. Each short is basically the same plot: Wallace introduces Gromit to his newest invention, he starts it up, and all hell immediately breaks loose. For anyone left wanting more after seeing the main portion of the disc, Cracking Contraptions makes for a nice dessert. Picture and sound quality for these spots are just as good as for the three films themselves.
Rounding out the disc’s bonus features are two featurettes. One is a behind-the-scenes look at Cracking Contraptions that shows the enthusiasm of Nick Park and his team at Aardman Animation to be working on Wallace and Gromit again. The second is a promotional piece for Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which is clearly aimed for younger viewers in the hopes of generating big ticket sales. Both featurettes offer little depth, and are far too brief.
Now, prior to this DreamWorks release, these three shorts were released on a disc from Warner Bros., who had the rights at the time. That DVD featured fun and informative commentary tracks from Nick Park, BBC interstitials featuring the characters, storyboards, and an excellent documentary that looked at Aardman’s history, Nick Park’s childhood films, and just how much time and effort went into making Wallace say the word “toast.” None of that is found here. And yet, I can’t flat-out recommend that viewers skip the DreamWorks disc and find the prior one on eBay, because the DreamWorks disc has the great Cracking Contraptions. The combined extras on both discs would have made this an instant must-buy, but instead they are divided, and if you only own one of the two, you’re missing out on part of the Wallace and Gromit experience. Yes, I know, there are lawyers involved. But in the past, we’ve seen companies like Criterion and Shout! Factory work miracles to get the unreleasable released. So why can’t the big studios do the same, pooling resources to give their customers a disc they can truly cherish? (Editor’s Note: Fox also released a disc prior to WB. It is unique among the the DVDs, in that it presents The Wrong Trousers with all its original music cues intact; “Happy Birthday to You” and “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window” were replaced for later releases.)
One more nit-pick: When you hit “play all” on the disc’s menu, it shows you the three films out of order. A Grand Day Out, the first, is followed by A Close Shave, the third, and then The Wrong Trousers, the second. What is this, Pulp Fiction? Perhaps the producers felt that because so many feel Trousers is the best of the three that it should be the big finale. Each film can stand separately, but the characters do grow from film to film, and the animation sharpens. Each film in progression opens up the overall “world” of Wallace and Gromit a little more, and by showing them out of order, the disc’s producers are cheating viewers out of those discoveries.
If all you want is the animation itself, then go ahead and buy this disc. You’ll love it. But if you want some substantial extras to go with the wonderful animation, then you wont get it. Not even Wensleydale.