October 25, 2009

Wallace and Gromit image (7).jpg

Considering the worldwide phenomenon Wallace and Gromit have become, it’s something of a mystery that the stop-motion duo’s latest adventure, the Hitchcockian “who-donut” A Matter of Loaf and Death, would go straight to home video in the States (as opposed to overseas, where the BBC debuted the film to through-the-roof ratings on Christmas Day). The upside of the arrangement is that it gives American fans an excuse to snag the entire W&G collection on Blu-ray, complete with commentaries, extras and a host of “Cracking Contraptions” shorts.

As it turns out, Loaf and Death is actually something of a letdown, trading the retro-styled charm of their three previous shorts and feature-length adventure Curse of the Were-Rabbit for faster pacing, a fair amount of CG and a bunch of recent blockbuster references (after operating in a 1940s-style time capsule all these years, does the series really need references to Aliens?). It seems unfair to complain, given the overall quality of any given Aardman effort, but chock it up to the fact that W&G creator Nick Park and his team got it so right with 1993’s The Wrong Trousers. More after the jump:

Wallace and Gromit Blu-ray.jpgThat film got straight to the heart of the duo’s dynamic. Later installments would provide Wallace with various goofy-looking romantic partners (Loaf and Death even offers Gromit a love interest of his own in the form of the trembling poodle Fluffles), but the pair already operated like a married couple, with Gromit faithfully making up for the absentminded bachelor’s shortcomings around the house.

The Wrong Trousers showed what happened when a tenant, the sinister penguin Feathers McGraw, came between the pair. So, while it was satisfying to see Wallace smitten in subsequent adventures, the introduction of a third character – whether Shaun the Sheep, who spawned his own stop-motion series, or any number of awkward-looking ladies – always seemed to have the same effect of edging Gromit out of the picture (in A Close Shave, the poor mutt goes to jail while Wallace is off courting Wendolene).

Because Wallace’s job changes with each episode, Loaf and Death finds him baking, not the most exciting of careers perhaps, but convenient, as Park and longtime co-writer Bob Baker have devised a plot in which a former Bake-O-Lite spokesmodel (a few carbs heavier these days) intends to murder all the local breadmakers, with Wallace being her 13th victim. It’s not a particularly inspired story, though it does offer the usual number of clever moments, especially between Gromit and his long-lashed poodle friend Fluffles.

Wallace and Gromit image (4).jpgThe choice of baking (which may have sparked from nothing more than a play on Bob Baker’s name – it is his likeness, after all, featured on the clueless baker killed during the pre-credits sequence) calls for quite a bit of CG, as the animators had to go in afterwards to add the puffs of flour and clouds of steam that surround much of the action. In general W&G’s world seems larger now, and camera moves have gotten considerably more complex, which paradoxically seems to work against Aardman’s lo-fi charm.

It’s interesting to go back and compare the look of Loaf and Death to W&G’s first adventure, A Grand Day Out, which Park animated himself over the course of seven years, beginning at the National Film Television School in London and completed after being hired at Aardman. Though still one of the series’ most charming entries, A Grand Day Out looks far cruder, and the characters haven’t fully taken shape yet (Wallace’s head is quite narrow, for starters, and the featurettes reveal that it wasn’t until actor Peter Sallis said the word “cheese” that Park thought to broaden Wallace’s mouth – a process that continued well into A Close Shave).

Though the subsequent entries grew considerably more polished, part of Park’s aesthetic has always been to embrace the “thumby” quality of the medium, which amounts to manipulating the plasticine characters ever so slightly for each frame (nothing says handmade like the occasional fingerprint in frame). Turns out that’s considerably more work than it appears, as we learn in “Inside The Wrong Trousers,” which shows Park ripping out Wallace’s teeth and rebuilding them for each shot (no wonder the animators look to deliver as much dialogue off-camera as possible).

Wallace and Gromit image.jpgHow odd that in the era of super-clean CG animation, stop-motion seems so beloved largely for its imperfections. The folks at Laika, the studio that produced Henry Selick’s Coraline, add a step after the stop-motion work is complete, cleaning up the wires and seams (since the characters’ faces are actually split into separate mouth and eye shapes), but it’s sort of a shame that we’re not allowed to see the process. By contrast, Wes Anderson insisted on using real fur for the characters in Fantastic Mr. Fox, which creates a distinct rippling effect, since it’s nearly impossible to match from one frame to the next as animators manipulate the puppets between shots.

Since W&G have primarily been a small-screen phenomenon (I first owned their adventures on fuzzy VHS), the beauty of getting this latest W&G collection on Blu-ray is that it allows us a chance to take in every surface detail. With a Pixar or DreamWorks toon, that means admiring the flawless perfection machines are capable of, but with Aardman, it’s just the opposite, and bless them for not going back and cleaning up after themselves.

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