Possession, Piranha, Predators & Pastry: CFQ Post-Mortem Podcast 1:29.1

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After casting the devil out of THE LAST EXORCISM, Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski exercise their analytic on other possession movies in the latest episode of Cinefantastique’s weekly Post-Mortem Podcast. What are the best and worst the genre has to offer: THE EXORCIST, THE EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, THE EXORCIST III, HOUSE OF EXORCISM?
Also this week: an exploration of the questions:

  • What do THE LAST EXORCISM and AFTER.LIFE have in common?
  • Is PREDATORS this year’s most entertaining horror, fantasy, or science fiction film?
  • What’s up with trailers for films like PIRANHA 3D and PREDATORS, which promise scenes not in the movie?
  • Does A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH, the latest animated adventure starring plasticene pals Wallace and Gromit, live up to their previous, Oscar-winning work?


Wallace and Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death: review

Wallace and Gromit are back in an all-new animated adventure. After the entertaining but disappointing WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (which seemed stretched a bit thin at feature length), creator, director, and co-writer Nick Park returns his delightful plasticine pals to their preferred format, the half-hour short. Even if the results do not quite live up to their best work (THE WRONG TROUSERS, A CLOSE SHAVE), A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH is nevertheless another fine mess, loaded with droll dialogue and amusing sight gags.
In the tradition established by THE WRONG TROUSERS, the plot of A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH is structured as a Hitchcockian thriller and executed with all the precision and craftsmanship of the genuine article; the humor derives from the amusing absurdity of seeing this story told through the medium of stop-motion.
That recipe may sound as appetizing as bread leavened with gunpowder instead of baking soda, but the dough rises to the correct level, creating a surprisingly good flavor combination, and nowhere is that combination more startlingly effective than in the opening scene: the stop-motion camera creeps up on the draftly naive Baker Bob (a play on co-writer Bob Baker’s name), who doesn’t realize until too late that a rolling pin is aimed at his skull. The shock of the (unseen) impact is almost enough to match that of a serious, live-action film – until Baker Bob falls face-first into his own dough, his glasses landing goofily on the back of his head.
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen: this charming family film begins with a brutal murder – and it’s funny! Not only that: A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH sustains the queasy combo of comedy and crime throughout. How? Well, it certainly helps to have the delightful duo of Wallace and Gromit stuck right in the middle of it.
A Matter of Loaf and Death Wallace saves PiellaIn A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH, Wallace and Gromit run a bakery deliver service. On their route one day, they rescue Piella, a former poster girl for bakery advertisements, whose bicycle brakes seem to have gone out. When Gromit checks them out immediately afterward, the brakes seem functional, leading us wonder whether this was truly an accidental encounter. It turns out that Bob was the twelfth baker recently murdered, and the killer is intent on making it a baker’s dozen.  Is Wallace really the apple in Piella’s eye, or could shea and her poodle Fluffles be involved in the crime?
If there is a weakness with the story of A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH, it is that it tends to revisit elements from previous Wallace and Gromit films without expanding and improving on the ideas in a way that tops its predecessors (a neat trick that both THE WRONG TROUSERS and A CLOSE SHAVE pulled off). Essentially, this film recreates the story of A CLOSE SHAVE: Wallace meets and falls in love with a woman with a pet dog, who turn out to be involved in criminal activity; at least the dynamic is changed in terms of who is the perpetrator and who is the reluctant accomplice.
Nevertheless, A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH delivers a crackling mystery story in 30-minutes, filled with funny sequences that show off the beloved characters as they perform variations on their familiar themes (once again, thanks to Wallace’s amateur inventions, simply getting up in the morning is akin to being a marble hurtling through a Rube Goldberg device). The Hitchcockian homages are clearer than ever, including a dead-on recreation of Arbogast’s walk up the stairs of the Bates house in PSYCHO (1960), as Gromit investigates nefarious activity.
A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008) bombMixed in are numerous other references: a roomful of mannequins (one for each murder victim) has an eerie ambiance worth of Mario Bava’s giallo films (e.g. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE); Gromit’s difficulty disposing of a bomb hilariously duplicates a similar predicament in BATMAN (1966), and James Cameron gets another shout-out (it was a Terminator-type dog in A CLOSE SHAVE; this time it’s a fight on a forklift that echoes Ripley’s power-loader battle with the queen in ALIENS).
The master craftsmanship displayed in scenes like this is all the more impressive when one considers the challenges of stop-motion, not only on a technical level but an artistic one: how do you “sell” this kind of material to an audience watching what looks like a colorful kiddie film? One of the great achievements of director Nick Park is that, although his stop-motion work display a charming old-fashioned hands-on approach, it also pushes the limits in terms of advancing the technique in modern ways.
The motion blur necessary to create a convincing sense of buildings flying by as a car races down the street is rendered so convincingly that you almost overlook what an achievement it is. And in another clever moment, Wallace is actually made to look as though he is leaping through the air in slow-motion. In effect, Park is proving that stop-motion animation, though apparently primitive in the era of modern computer-animation, can still provide the shots necessary to provide an exciting, visceral thrill.

 Wallace's birthday candle turns out to be a fuse for a bomb
Wallace's birthday candle turns out to be a fuse for a bomb

Peter Sallis once again provides the voice of Wallace, the exaggerated accent providing the perfect opportunity for expressive lip-sync animation. (If you want to experience something unusual, pop TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA or any of Sallis’ work for Hammer Films: hearing that voice come out of an actual actor – in a horror film – is positively surreal.) And once again, the silent Gromit steals the show with his expressive eye-rolls and pantomime gestures.
My initial reaction to A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH is one of slight disappointment. The bits and pieces form a colorful mosaic, but the finished work is not quite a successful whole. Although the  set-pieces are fun as always, the finale does not built to the sort of deliriously breathless climax we have come to expect; and it leaves our heroes too much on the sidelines as the guest stars take over. Still, to say that A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH is not quite another CLOSE SHAVE is hardly a criticism, and in fact my initial reaction to A CLOSE SHAVE was that it was not another WRONG TROUSERS. With such high expectations, disappointment is almost inevitable. Hopefully, that will pass (as it did with A CLOSE SHAVE), making it easier to judge A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH on its own worthy terms.

Awards and Nominations

As with the previous Wallace and Gromit films, A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH was nominated in 2010 for an Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science; however, it did not win. For those keeping score at home, A GRAND DAY OUT was nominated for Best Animated Short; THE WRONG TROUSERS and A CLOSE SHAVE won for Best Animated Short; CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT won for Best Animated Feature; and A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH was nominated for Best Animated Short.
Other awards and nominations include:

  • 2009 Annie Awards: won for best Animated Short Subject
  • 2009 BAFTA Awards: won Best Short Animation
  • 2009 Chicago International Children’s Film Festival: 2nd place for Animated Short Film or Video
Other references and inside jokes

A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008) a spoof of ghost

  • The scene of Piella and Wallace “molding” the dough recalls a similar moment (with clay) in GHOST.
  • Vinyl record called “Puppy Love” by “Doggy Osmond” – which is heard at end of film. Other albums include “The Hound of Music” and one by a group called “The Beagles.”
  • Grommit reads “Electronic surveillance for Dogs”. In THE WRONG TROUSERS, he read “Electronics for Dogs”.
  • Fluffles sleeps in a box marked “Meatabix” – the same brand name of dog food as seen on the box from which Gromit spies on Feathers McGraw in THE WRONG TROUSERS.
  • Gromit owns DVDs for “Bite Club”, “The Bone Identity”, “Pup Fiction”, “Where Beagles Dare,” and the “The Dogfather”

A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH (2008). Directed by Nick Park. Written by Nick Park & Bob Baker. Voices: Peter Sallis, Sally Lindsay, Melissa Collier, Sarah Laborde.
A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008) Gromit, Piella, Fluffels, Wallace A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008) Wallace and Gromit A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008) Fluffels A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008) Fluffles and Piella A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008) Fluffles and Gromit A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008) Gromit baking A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008) Wallace and Piella tango A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008) romance blooms for Wallace and Piella A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008) Wallace and Gromit run a bakery delivery service

Sense of Wonder: A Grand Day for Wallace and Gromit

With little excitment  in terms of new cinefantastique this weekend, we are taking this opportunity to dig through our archives a present a retrospective series of reviews and interviews regarding the work of stop-motion animator Nick Park, in particular his plasticine pals Wallace and Gromit. The characters first reached the screen in the Oscar-nominated short A GRAND DAY OUT. Since then, they have been in two more short subjects (THE WRONG TROUSERS and A CLOSE SHAVE) and a feature film (CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT), all of which won Oscars; plus, they appeared in a series of short “webisodes” called CRACKING CONTRAPTIONS. Park’s other work includes the Oscar-winning CREATURE COMFORTS, which launched a television series, in which stop-motion animals lyp-synch to non-scripted interviews of people discussing various topics). This technique was pioneered by Aardman Animations, which hired Park out of college. Aardman has a stable of animators who have created interesting and entertaining films, but Park’s Wallace and Gromit remain the studio’s true stars.
Articles posted today include:

Giving Wallace and Gromit "A Close Shave"

Stop-motion stars Wallace and Gromit have their roots in Park’s early sketchbook, and they first took shape in A GRAND DAY OUT, the Oscar‑nominated short that Park began as a school project and completed at Aardman Animation. After directing the Oscar-winner CREATURE COMFORTS, Park brought Wallace and Gromit back to even greater acclaim with THE WRONG TROUSERS, which won him his second Academy Award for an animated short subject in 1994. Two years later, he featured the characters once again, in yet another Oscar‑winning effort, A CLOSE SHAVE. (For those keeping score, each of Park’s four short films have been nominated; the only one that didn’t win, A GRAND DAY OUT, lost to his own CREATURE COMFORTS.)
So, what was it like going back and trying to follow up a film that had won an Academy Award? “It was difficult, actually,” said Park, interviewed while in town to pick up ‑his third Oscar. “It, was a hard act to follow. It’s only afterward, when you try to do it again, that you realize you just hit on a magical formula which seemed to work. It was very hard to write something that was going to work again.”
In a way, Park had an even greater challenge than with his first sequel, THE WRONG TROUSERS. A GRAND DAY OUT is an amusing piece of film-making, in which Wallace and Gromit, take a, trip to the moon, but the, storytelling is fairly basic, leaving room for improvement. WRONG TROUSERS, on the other hand, took the eccentric comic characters and threw them into the middle of a Hitchcockian suspense plot ‑‑ a pastiche as finely executed as any live‑action thriller. After that stroke of brilliance, what more could Park do with A CLOSE SHAVE?
“In a way,” said Park, “I didn’t try to make it better — that, could have. been a mistake, so I tried to make something that was different and had other ingredients — like the romance, for example. We still had a chase sequence and a sort of Hitchcockian atmosphere.
“I did want to make a better chase sequence, but I’m dubious of that at the same time,” Park continued. “I’m always a little bit dubious of sequels that just look at what was in the last one and try to make it bigger — like bigger explosions. I didn’t want to just get into pyrotechnics or technically thrilling bits. It does look more sophisticated, but that wasn’t intentional, really. It comes from more people working on it; the story itself required more, because there are five characters in this one and thirty sheep. It was complicated, and there were a lot more shots. That’s why it seems to be more fast-moving, more condensed — which wasn’t always my intention. I was always worried that that might be too much. The subtle aspects of THE WRONG TROUSERS ‑‑ I would like to have maintained that a bit more. It’s not the technically sophisticated flying sequences that make it; it’s the looks on Gromit’s face — it’s the emotions — that matter. And the chase sequences have to have emotional content as well. I think we did it, but ideally I would like to have given the whole film a bit more breathing space. Our stricture was fitting the whole thing into thirty minutes.”
That thirty‑minute limitation was the result of financing. Michael Rose, one of the producers at Aardman Animations, explained: “Although our films are made for cinema, they are usually financed by television money. That is why there’s so much stop‑motion coming out of England: we have access to TV money to produce it. That means we have not been able to do much theatrical [distribution] in England. A CLOSE SHAVE was finished in November last year and was on television for Christmas, whereas abroad we have a window of a year. Ironically, our films are seen more theatrically abroad.”
How did the sequel come to be? “It’s a slow process that happens from a lot of discussions,” said Park. “Basically, it comes from us thinking what we want to do next. I talk about it to Peter Lord and Dave Broxton, the co-founders of Aardman; they’ve actually made me a director of the company as well. Also, we have this general policy that we want to make films of our own ideas.”
Part of the impetus was that the BBC, who co‑financed THE WRONG TROUSERS with Aardman, wanted a follow‑up. “That was so successful for them that they came back to us and said, ‘Let’s do another Wallace and Gromit film,'” said Park. “I wasn’t against the idea; I liked the idea. Really, I wanted to make something longer. I wanted to make a feature film, but we thought, ‘We’re not really ready for that yet; it would be good to get some more practice making a short.’ And the BBC really wanted another holiday special.”
Park took the opportunity to expand the scope of A CLOSE SHAVE, adding another speaking character so that Wallace could at last have a real dialogue, as opposed to simply speaking to his silent dog, Gromit. He also came up with a supporting cast of sheep, who provide much of the comedy. The idea may not sound promising — may even sound ludicrous — but part of Park’s genius lies in the humor derived from the absurdity of his outrageous concepts.
“It’s like the other ideas, like the penguin [from WRONG TROUSERS]; it goes back to my early sketchbook,” said Park. “I’ve found that all these ideas have their roots in earlier ideas. You don’t know it at the time; it must be like a stream of consciousness. It’s whatever grabs you, whatever you like. If there’s something I can’t stop thinking about, that’s what I want to do. So I’m led by that feeling of ‘What do I enjoy? What have I loved since being a kid? What’s always fascinated me?’ Which maybe explains the broad appeal ‑‑ which I can’t explain [otherwise] ‑‑ to some extent: I’m trying to make the things I wanted to see as a kid. Also, it’s got to work for me now as an adult, so I bring in all these filmic devices — techniques to make it more of a movie.”
Speaking of reviving earlier ideas, Park’s initial concept for WRONG TROUSERS was that a flock of penguins, not just the solitary criminal Feathers Mc­Graw, would invade the home of Wallace and Gromit. For A CLOSE SHAVE, he seems to have revived the idea but re­placed the penguins with sheep­ “Actually, you’re right, because there were going to be a lot of penguins that cause havoc, and then I narrowed it down to one,” said Park. “It’s funny‑‑‑as if those ideas were there from the beginning, and you just discover them. In A GRAND DAY OUT, on the wall there’s a pic­ture of sheep. I don’t know why I did it — it just made it more interesting. I thought it was a cu­riosity that people would ana­lyze in the future. I didn’t real­ize then that sheep would be in a future film.”
The film repeats some motifs from WRONG TROUSERS but in new variations. For instance, this time Gromit is wrongly imprisoned ‑ — and ends up in the jail cell occupied by Feathers at the end of WRONG TROUSERS. (This may only be apparent to sharp‑eyed viewers who note the graffito on the wall: “Feathers was here.”) “I seem to have a fascination with zoos and prisons, as in CREATURE COMFORTS,” Park admitted. “The zoo phenomenon is interesting — prisons, being captive — maybe because it has resonances for people; it’s all about ‘What is freedom?’ We’ve always been able to relate to animals. A lot of our culture ‑‑ all cultures really ‑‑ are about animals, using them for metaphors. They somehow speak to us by their situation. I can’t get too deep about it, but I thought there might be something in that.”
One of the more memorable visual gags from WRONG TROUSERS was the sight of Feathers, the penguin criminal, wielding a gun. Park tops that in A CLOSE SHAVE with the even more deliciously absurd sight of a sheep wielding a power saw to cut the bars from Gromit’s prison cell. Park credits this sort of inspired lunacy to long hours of script sessions. “I worked with the same writer as on WRONG TROUSERS, Bob Baker, who was involved with DR. WHO for years when Tom Baker was playing the role, and John Pertwee. It was a combination of his kind of traditional British writing, which is very much like Ealing comedies, plus my own cartoon sense. When we’re writing, we sit there for ages, looking into our cups and not thinking of anything, stuck, and what goes into the script is what makes us laugh, because suddenly we’ll think of something and crack up. That’s the way it works, really; we just talk a lot, and it’s whatever gets that reaction.”
Because the home invaders in this film — i.e., the sheep — turn out to be benevolent, that left the villain role open. Park came up with Preston, a nefarious canine who turns out to be a “cyber-dog.” “I always have loved robots,” said Park, “especially in old‑fashioned, very simple ’50s robots, like in Bugs Bunny cartoons, where they just fed in a piece of paper with a rabbit on it. I’ve never really seen that done with plasticine — although the cyberdog wasn’t plasticine — in this kind of movie. I suppose it’s a traditional sci‑fi thing: somebody turns out to be a robot. It was just a good twist in the story, partly because no one had suspected it, although we telegraphed it early.”
The revelation occurs late in the film when Preston’s fur is removed by Wallace’s Knit‑0‑Matic (one of the self-styled inventor’s many Rube Goldberg‑type contraptions). “To a lot of people, that’s obviously [derived from] TERMINATOR,” said Park. “I think people are right, and I think the music enhances that [perception], as well. That did cross my mind. I think a lot of these influences, which seem like film references, are often just things that occur to you at the time. You might describe it to somebody like TERMINATOR, because it’s the most obvious thing. I try to weigh the references very lightly; I don’t want to copy bits from films. I’m trying to put across atmospheres of certain films that I’ve grown up with, like Hitchcock.”
Typical of animation, Park’s work is carefully scripted and story‑boarded so that the film can more or less be edited in the camera, “because you can’t afford to keep reshooting and shooting things you won’t need,” said Park. “We actually shoot the story boards on video; I time the action and shoot it, according to those timings. That gives you an idea how the story’s working in terms of pacing, and how well the story’s being visually told. Even though that is a rigid story board — or ‘animatic,’ as we call the video — I’m constantly editing it as we shoot. Because often the way a shot works in reality isn’t like the story board. It’s got to be adaptable. Animation is such a human endeavor, not a robotic thing, so there’s always going to be some improvisation in the way it’s shot, in terms of what the animators bring to the characters.
“People are constantly bombarding me with questions, especially with the larger crew on A CLOSE SHAVE, and I hate making decisions in the camera that limit me in terms of editing scenes,” Park added. “I’d like to shoot these things like live‑action and have as much choice as possible. So I’m always asking the animators to shoot a little bit more: if a character’s turning out of frame, I ask the animator to get him out of frame; otherwise, you’re stuck with one cutting point.”
Are there ever any surprises when the footage is cut together?
“Constant surprises!” exclaims Park. “Quite often something makes you laugh when you see it for the first time, when you get the dailies back from the labs. Everyone in the cutting room laughs when you show it on the machine, but then you cut it into the film and it’s not funny any more. I shouldn’t worry about that, because often it’s not the individual shot that’s meant to be funny; it’s the overall scene that’s funny in concept. It’s funny how things work in different ways when you edit it. There are certain things that nobody laughs at, and I thought everybody would, and vice versa: bits that everybody laughs at that weren’t meant to be that funny. What’s more satisfying is when something you have planned works exactly — like the sheep breaking into prison.”
Although the Aardman staff are pleased that the popularity of Wallace and Gromit has created a demand for more, they are concerned that fulfilling the demand might overrule aesthetic considerations. “We’re very fortunate that in England Wallace and Gromit have been established as major character stars, almost,” said producer Michael Rose. “Characters like that come along very rarely. You have to be very careful to protect them, to make sure they’re not exploited or used cheaply. This is pretty much it for the time being; I think Nick will come back to Wallace and Gromit but not for awhile.”
Is it best to move away from Wallace and Gromit? “A lot of people think it isn’t, because we’ve created popularity and the demand for it,” said Park. “But I don’t want to keep doing them just because they’re popular. To me, there’s always got to be a new challenge. I don’t ever want to be doing something out of repetition — just easy things that I know I can do. The feature format will be a new challenge, and it would keep me sane, in a way.”
Park’s feature ambitions are apparent in A CLOSE SHAVE, which occasionally seems to be bursting at the seams with ideas which could have been expanded. “I’d have liked it to be longer,” admitted Park. “I thought it needed more shots. During some of the busy sequences, it needed more characters’ reactions. I think it could have been quite a bit longer. You’re right: there’s a frustrated feature film in there.”
Nevertheless, Park and Ardman Animation chose to avoid the obvious route when it came to making their first full-length film, “We’re planning a feature now, but it’s not Wallace and Gromit,” Park explained at the time of his third Oscar win in 1996. “Since I started A GRAND DAY OUT in college, I’ve actually been doing Wallace and Gromit, on and off, for thirteen years. I really feel very strongly for them: they’re my babies, and I still think of ideas for them; I would like them to have more of a life, and I’d like to come back to them and do more short films or a feature. I think there would be no problem getting financing for a feature film. But I think for now I just want to get on with some new ideas, new characters.”
The result was CHICKEN RUN, which Park co-directed with Peter Lord, another one of Ardman’s top animation directors. The film went on to become the first stop-motion feature to make over $100-million at the U.S. box office, when it was released by DreamWorks in 2000.
Unfortunately,that blockbuster success did not ignite a boom in stop-motion movies, but it did pave the way for Wallace and Gromit to make their long-awaited full-length movie, WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT, which was finally completed in time for a release in 2005 — over fifteen years after the completion of A GRAND DAY OUT and over twenty years after Nick Park first conceived of the two characters who would go on to earn such a beloved niche in the history of stop-motion.

Wallace and Gromit slip into "The Wrong Trousers"

Ardman Animation, the British producer of stop-motion commercials and short subjects has numerous entertaining films to its credit, including PIB AND POG, NOT WITHOUT MY HANDBAG, and THE INFINITE VARIETY SHOW, but the compa­ny’s crown jewels have to be the delightful duo of Wallace and Gromit. Their first film, A GRAND DAY OUT, was nominated for an Academy Award in the 1990 animated short category but lost out to Aardman’s own CREATURE COMFORTS; both of their next two short subjects, THE WRONG TROUSERS (1993) and A CLOSE SHAVE (1995), managed to take home the Oscar gold. Since then, there have been merchandising tie-ins and a series of vignettes made for the Internet, eventually leading to a feature film WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT.
The stop-motion comedy team began their career, modestly enough, in a sketchbook that director Nick Park kept in art school. “At one point, I was thinking of a book that would be illustrated for kids, and I had these two characters, though originally Gromit was a cat,” Park recalled. “Later on, at National Film School in London, I needed a couple of characters for my graduation film, so I went back to my old sketch book, found these two, and changed Gromit to a dog. They were really just fitted into the story basically.”
The film was A GRAND DAY OUT, in which Wallace and Gromit run out of cheese and hit on the idea of going to the moon to replenish their supply. Park worked on the film, off and on, for several years before hooking up with Aardman Animations, who offered to help him finish it while he worked on other projects for them, including the Oscar-winning CREATURE COMFORTS. “I was working on [GRAND DAY OUT] single-handedly, because it was quite low-budget, being at college, so I couldn’t really pay people properly to help me. Then Aardman gave me part time employment and helped me finish it. It took six years in total.”
The film justified the years of effort by earning a nomination for an Academy Award. It also established the trademark Nick Park style of wide-mouthed toothy characters speaking in amusingly exaggerated lip-sync. Park’s Ardman Animation films used stop-motion figures fashioned from plasticine (similar to Play-Dough), which allows the animator to “sculpt” the expression of the characters, lending an expressivity often missing from stop-motion achieved with traditional armature puppets.
“Partly, I wanted to make my mark,” Park admits. “But the biggest catalyst was Wallace’s accent after I recorded the voice with Peter Sallis. He’s got a very nice voice; he puts on this sort of Northern accent, which really stretches the vowels. I let that dictate to me. I animated a little bit of dialogue in A GRAND DAY OUT, and it was a bit subtle. So on the next take, I thought, ‘Just got for it.’ I thought [the approach] was just for Wallace. When it came to CREATURE COMFORTS, I thought it would be a more natural style, but as soon as we came to designing and animating the animals, I just found I liked that approach too much to get away from it.”
CREATURE COMFORTS, which employed Aardman’s innovative technique of creating “documentary” animation by lip-syncing puppets to taped interviews, won Park his first Oscar. The approach, with its locked-off camera, minimal action, and reliance on dialogue, might have seemed limiting, but Park managed to bring quite a bit of nuance to his characters (who are all animals discussing life in a zoo). “I just let the soundtrack, which was recorded first, dictate to me. Very little is planned; you just listen to it and play it back again and again and see what it suggest to you. The lip-sync is the easy bit, because you’ve got it all written out on a sheet which tells you what to do phonetically for every frame.”
More challenging were the numerous sight gags inserted behind the speakers. “It was very difficult, because you constantly calculate where the audience is looking at any one time. You don’t want to distract from the funny things in the dialogue, so you’re looking for spaces. It’s all about timing. On one of the commercials we did, there’s a parrot talking in the foreground and his friend in the background waving around and eventually falls off the perch. Somebody said to me, ‘After the first three seconds into the ad, you’re just watching the other parrot. You don’t watch at all the one that’s talking.’”
After these successes, Park and Aardman returned to Wallace and Gromit with a bigger budget and greater ambition. “A GRAND DAY OUT was very much a linear story, which works well with very young kids — they can grasp it easily,” he explained. “With the next film, I felt like more of a filmmaker than an animator, and I was more ambitious to do something more filmic, with more story and plot. With a bigger financial commitment, we all wanted to see something much stronger come out of this, something pushed forward in terms of storytelling. We put more effort up front into that side of things, about six months of writing. We went to a writer named Bob Baker, whose done ten years of DR. WHO.
With the overt Hitchcockian influence in the film, it is surprising to note that the title is not an intentional play on THE WRONG MAN. “I didn’t know there was a film called that,” said Park. “It’s funny, because I’m into Hitchcock films very much. I was aiming to get something of a B-movie thriller feel to it, like THE THIRD MAN.That’s not exactly a B-movie, but I love that sort of title.”
In keeping with the Hitchcock tradition, Park presents two marvelous, visual set pieces, so brilliant in their execution that they almost justify themselves quite apart from how they fit into the story. The first is the sequence wherein the penguin uses Wallace, in the “Techno Trousers” (a robotic NASA invention), to steal a diamond from a heavily guarded museum. Park then tops that with an uproarious chase atop a model train. “I tend to be more visually led, and I just loved the way the penguin fit onto the train. In fact that whole sequence was a kind of ‘set piece’ we had on the shelf which might have been used in the plot and might not, because I had many different ideas.”
Feathers McGraw, the felonious villain of the piece, also goes back to Park’s art school sketchbook. “I had this idea of a bunch of penguins coming to stay with Wallace and Gromit; then I wanted to strip that idea down to one penguin and use it as the basis for this new story. At first, he was going to get up a lot of mischief and get on Gromit’s nerves, basically. Then somebody said, ‘Why not make him a kind of hardened criminal living undercover?’ That fit in with the Hitchcock idea — the kind of strange lodger who comes and goes without saying anything, and you wonder what he’s up to. That element started to come out and form the story.
“I just wanted a villain that was the most unlikely,” Park continued. “There’s something about Wallace and Gromit that goes back to the English tradition like the Ealing comedies [which include such crime-ridden comedy classics as 1949’s KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, 1951’s THE LAVENDAR HILL MOB, and 1955’s THE LADYKILLERS]. That’s a feeling I tried to capture — that there’s something just quirky about the story. I tried to inject unlikely things into the story, like the Techno Trousers and the penguin, always having a twist so that nothing’s predictable. Whenever the story is doing what you think it should, then don do it; take it somewhere else. Don’t let anyone have quite what they’re expecting.”
After the success of THE WRONG TROUSERS, there was no doubt that the adventures of Wallace and Gromit would continue, but there was some question as to what form their future films would take. In particular, Park was concerned about not ruining the characters in a rush to cash in on them. “We are talking about some of the ways it might go,” Park said at the time. “We have a lot of interest in doing more films; I feel the iron’s hot and ready to strike. We’re talking about a longer film at the moment, though what the actual length would be we don’t quite know. It could be 50 minutes long; it could be a TV movie or even something longer. We’re working on a script with Bob Baker again, a 75-minute story that we may very well condense down. We think we probably could get the feature film money for it, but it’s a matter of: the more money there is, the more commercial pressure there is, and with these two characters I think they’ve got to be handled sensitively, not driven by people in suits saying what they should be doing and what kind of market they’ve got to appeal to, because I think it would destroy them.”

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

After winning two Academy Awards in the short animated category, Wallace and Gromit’s feature film debut in THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT is, frankly, disappointing. It’s not as good as THE WRONG TROUSERS; it’s not as good as A CLOSE SHAVE. But at least it is good.
One suspects that DreamWorks (which has had blockbuster success with computer-generated animated films like SHREK and MADAGASCAR) held a heavier hand over this production than they did on CHICKEN RUN (the previous feature film collaboration between the American distributor and the British production company, Aardman Animations). The humor here seems slightly cruder and more blunt (lots of burbing, and vegetables strategically placed to align with human anatomy in suggestive ways), without as much of the quirky British sensibility that made the Wallace & Gromit short subjects so endearing.
Which is not to say it isn’t there; it simply appears in a lower ratio. Basically, the film feels a bit like a sequel wherein all the stuff that worked previously is stitched back together and hyped up even bigger than before. In this case, this means there are several fast-paced action scenes that play out quite well, but the plot and characterization suffer slightly in the effort to make the stop-motion subject matter exciting enough for the big screen.
This time out, the story puts stop-motion stars Wallace and Gromit in charge of their own pest control business (called “Anti Pesto”), a humane operation that captures rather than kills the ravenous rabbits that threaten the local village’s annual produce contest. (Curiously, Wallace and Gromit seemed to live in the city in their short subjects; no explanation is given for how their house wound up in the English countryside.) In an attempt to rehabilitate the rabbits, Wallace the inventor comes up with a cracking contraption that transfers his brainwaves into the creatures: since Wallace loves cheese and hates vegetables, this should put a stop to their ravenous rampages on the would-be prize-winning melons, etc.
Of course, the contraption goes awry, creating the titular monster. The film finally gets going during a nighttime chase with Gromit the dog behind the wheel of the Anti-Pesto van, trying to track the beast, which is glimpsed only in shadows. The rest of the story throws in an obnoxious villain (voiced by Fiennes) and his dog (no match for Preston in A CLOSE SHAVE), a love story (likewise, no match for the one in A CLOSE SHAVE), a bunch of cute rabbits (not as cute as the sheep in A CLOSE SHAVE), and a sort of flying sequence (again, not as good as the one in A CLOSE SHAVE, but at least it’s different enough to stand on its own). There is also a fairly predictable (it’s given away in the trailer) but well-handled twist regarding the identity of the were-rabbit, and the story comes to a reasonably splendid climax when the big-sized bunny makes like King Kong and climbs a mansion with the screaming leading lady tucked under his arm — a nice homage to the 1933 classic that set the standard for stop-motion monster effects.
Both THE WRONG TROUSERS and A CLOSE SHAVE work so well because they are Hitchcock-style pastiches played straight (well, about as straight as a stop-motion film about a daffy inventor and his anthropomorphic dog can be). Those films are not only short; they are also tightly structured, with editing and camera angles as carefully laid out as in any serious live-action film, and the humor comes not so much from the verbal jokes and visual sight gags as from the absurdity of applying a deadpan tone to the ridiculous situation. For example, there is nothing overtly funny about Feathers McGraw, the jewel thief in WRONG TROUSERS; the joke is watching this little black penguin go about his work as a master criminal (simply seeing sweat drip from his brow during a tense robbery sequence was enough to generate laughter).
CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT, on the other hand, consciously spoofs old horror movies, but this source of inspiration never yields as much inspiration as the thriller-plots of the short subjects. Part of the problem is that the threats in the feature film are not very threatening: the human hunter is just a buffoon — a straw man set up to be knocked down — and the were-rabbit (when finally seen clearly) is kind of cute and cuddly. Like the rest of the new characters, they look a bit too goofy (it’s as if the cast of all the other short films and commercials produced by Aardman Animation had wandered onto the set of Wallace and Gromit by mistake). As a result, there is not much tension, even on a make-believe level; the film is, therefore, forced to rely instead on the jokes to hold viewer attention on a laugh-by-laugh basis.
Fortunately, the worst of the weakness is apparent early in the story, which feels padded and frantic at the same time — trying hard to grab audience attetenion with some manic antics while not really going anywhere fast. Once the were-rabbit plot fully emerges after the too-long set-up, the film hits its stride and runs reasonably smoothly from there, with several clever sight gags and some impressively staged stop-motion sequences that play to the strengths of director Nick Park and his famous creations.
Overall, the film is definitely worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan, and children will probably love it. But if you are hoping to convert some of your friends into fans of Wallace & Gromit, you would be well advised to show the the wonderful “Early Adventures” before sending them off to watch this feature-film debut. To be fair, one should add that the film’s closing credits are quite charming, thanks to dozens of bunnies who float up and into the frame in ones and twos — waving, twirling, dancing and rubbing noses.
In theatres, CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT was preceded by a CGI short subject “The Madagasgar Penguins in A Christmas Caper.” It seems like a great idea, because the penguins were easily the best thing in MADAGASCAR, and the short subject is actually an improvement on the feature film. Still, it is not quite as hysterical as it intends to be. The character voices and sight gags are quite amusing, but the character design and computer-generated animation are not particularly outstanding. Still, whatever the shortcomings of the CGI, the penguin characters are a great comedy team, and it’s good to see them shine in their own little movie.

WALLACE AND GROMIT: CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (2005). Directed by Nick Park & Steve Box. Written by Park & Box & Mark Burton & Bob Baker. Voices: Peter Sallis, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Peter Kay, Nicholas Smith, Liz Smith.
Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

Wallace and Gromit: The Early Adventures

Before starring in their first feature film, plasticine pals Wallace and Gromit shot to stop-motion stardom in three short subjects: A GRAND DAY OUT, THE WRONG TROUSERS, and A CLOSE SHAVE. Produced by Aardman Animations (which also produced the Oscar-winning animated short CREATURE COMFORTS, plus numerous stop-motion commercials, including the Serta Sheep and the Chevron cars), all three Wallace and Gromit films were nominated for Academy Awards in the best animated short subject category; the later two won the award. The characters then went on to star in a series of two-minute vignettes shot for the Internet, called “Cracking Contraptions.”
Created by animator Nick Park, the characters are a perfect comedy team: Wallace is a slightly daft inventor who loves cheese and seems oblivious to the fact that his dog Gromit (who does not speak) is the real brains of the operation. Molded from plasticine (a play-dough-like substance), the characters have a quirky expressiveness not often seen in stop-motion.


The debut film of Wallace and Gromit is cut and amusing, establishing the characters and showing off several hilarious sight gags. In retrospect, the film is entertaining but not as impressive as its successors: the storytelling is fairly basic, and the filming technique has a slightly rough, almost crudely home-made feel (the character design on Wallace is noticeably different).
The story (not really a plot, per se) sees Wallace haivng difficulty deciding what to do with his free time on a bank holiday. Running out of cheese, he hits on the idea of a trip to the moon, because everyone knows the moon is made of cheese. After building a rocket in his basement, he and Gromit blast off to the lunar surface, where they chew on some moon rocks and run afoul of a derelict robot.
The film doesn’t really have any plot complications; the story simply proceeds from one scene to the next in a linear fashion, stringing together the visual jokes (such as a group of mice in the basement simultaneously donning sunglasses to watch the rocket’s blast-off). Because of this, the film doesn’t build to a climax; it simply moves along. But, like an old-fashoned silent movie comedy, the laughs are more than enough to sustain the short running time.


THE WRONG TROUSERS takes Wallace and Gromit and places them within a mystery-thriller scenario. The effect is parody, but like the best parody, this humor derives from the fact that what we are watching is in many way indistinguishable from the real thing. Ignore for a moment that what we are watching are lumps of clay. The technique employed (camera placement and movement, editing, and lighting) are as carefully employed as in any live-action film.
The story begins with a disarmingly amusing episode regarding Gromit’s birthday, which he thinks Wallace has forgotten. The tone shifts in a subtle way, however, when they take in a border: an obsequious penguin, who soon seems to be taking Gromit’s place as Wallace’s best friend. The situation is ripe for comedy, which director-animator Nick Park exploits fully, but along the way we gradually find that the mysterious penguin has a hidden agenda: to wit, heisting a diamond with the aid of Gromit’s birthday present (“Techno Trousers…ex-NASA…fantastic for walkies.”)
Everything about this film is perfect, from the broad comic strokes to the subtle nuances of the characters’ expressions. Even elements which could have been weaknesses are turned around into strengths. For instance, the silent penguin (only Wallace speaks) has virtually no expressive capabilities except for his blinking eyes, but this only adds to his enigmatic nature, as the Bernard Hermanesquescore underlines every gesture with menace. The film is filled with so much detail and cleverness that multiple viewings are almost essential. Park pulls some effective cinematic “cheats,” such as having Wallace back into an empty doorway, then stepping aside to reveal the penguin, who has suddenly appeared out of nowhere. The effectiveness of the character’s surprise appearance is only augmented by seeing how Park pulled a fast one on us.
Make no mistake: this film is a humorous takeoff on the theme, but Park is confident enough in his abilities to go for an extended visual sequences of the jewel heist, with only minor comic touches. This is so well-done that, on first viewing, one would assume it to be the highlight of the film. Then Park audaciously tops it with the climactic model train chase — quite an impressive coup. Like many great set pieces (the train chase in Hitchcock’s NUMBER 17 comes to mind), this later scene is barely justified by the story. (Gromit could have simply conked the villain on the head with his rolling pin, but in a delicious absurd sight gag the penguin pulls out a gun. Where the hell was this suitless penguin packing a rod?) But the visual impact of the scene is so great that it truly justifies its own existence.
This may sound a tad heavy-handed, yet THE WRONG TROUSERS is good exuberant fun. The storytelling is brisk enough to hold the attention of youngsters, but most of the references and inside jokes are clearly intended for an older audience. In its own way, despite the claymation which would seem to indicate a kiddie format, this is an ambitious undertaking which uses the cinematic form to its fullest extent. Shot for shot there is more style here than in a dozen live-action features — style that is enjoyable both for its own sake and for effectively enhancing the story telling.


The third Wallace and Gromit film builds upon the success of THE WRONG TROUSERS, crafting another action-packed, Hitchcockian thriller. It’s not as big an advance as THE WRONG TROUSERS was over A GRAND DAY OUT; in fact, in some ways it seems a repetition of the formula established in the previous film. And yet it manages to top its predecessor with a series of even more impressively staged sight gags and action sequences.
The film starts with a sheep escaping from the back of a truck and wandering into the home of Wallace and Gromit, who name him Sean after he is shorn of his wool in Wallace’s newest invention, the Knit-O-Matic. The next day, Wallace and Gromit are summoned to wash the windows of Wendolyne, who owns a menacing pet dog named Preston. The window-washing job turns out to be a ruse, as Preston takes advantage of Wallace and Gromit’s absence from home, sneaking into their basement in search of Sean. It turns out that Preston and Wendolyne (reluctantly, on her part) have been rustling sheep. Gromit is framed for the crime and sent to prison, but Wallace and the grateful sheep help him escape, which leads to a madcap chase (including Gromit flying in a motorcycle side car that sprouts wings) followed by the final-reel revelation that Preston is a TERMINATOR-type cyberdog.
With Sean the sheep undermining the tranquilty of Wallace and Gromit’s happy home, A CLOSE SHAVE at first seems to resemble WRONG TROUSERS too closely, but the film soon takes some interesting turns, introducing Preston as the villain and showing Wendolyne as his unwilling accomplice. The presence of another human character provides the first opportunity for dialogue in the series, and the blooming romance between Wallace and Wendolyne generates some good verbal humor to counterbalance the sight gags (sadly, it all comes crashing to a stop when Wallace discovers she doesn’t like cheese).
The highlight includes a chase scene that tops the train sequence in WRONG TROUSERS. This time we get a motorcycle pursuing a truck down a darkened road at night — which might not have been so funny if it weren’t for the dozen sheep balanced atop the cycle, forming Busby Berkely-like patterns in order to keep their balance and fit through tunnels.
Although some may prefer WRONG TROUSERS, A CLOSE SHAVE is probably the best of the three films. If there is a flaw, it is that the film sometimes seems like a “frustrated feature” (to use Nick Park’s words), as if the story could have easily been expanded to provide more nuance and subtety, more of the little asides that make Wallace and Gromit so amusing. Even so, if the condensed nature of the story leaves viewers wanting more, it also creates an almost breathlessly paced film that, like WRONG TROUSERS, works almost as well as any straight live-action thriller.


The three Wallace and Gormit shorts have been packaged together on videotape, laserdisc, and DVD. DVD releases include WALLACE AND GROMIT: THREE AMAZING ADVENTURES, WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE FIRST THREE ADVENTURES, and THE INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES OF WALLACE AND GROMIT. The DVD tirled WALLACE AND GROMIT IN THREE AMAZING ADVENTURES also includes the “Cracking Contraptions” episodes. These simple vignettes, running a couple minutes each, are based around Wallace’s ridiculous inventions. For instance, “Soccanatic” shows the two stop-motion stars getting a little exerciseon the soccer field. When Wallace grows tired of practise, he rolls out his mechanical soccamtic (“All the goals, none of the fuss”). Like an old-fasihoned comedy black-out, they play out like dramatized jokes: set up the joke and spring the punchline. Not as impressive as the ambitious storytelling of the later two Oscar-winning films, but still amusing.
CREDITS: A Grand Day Out (1989, 24 mins). Written & Directed by Nick Park. The Wrong Trousers (1993, 30 mins)’ Directed by Nick Park. Written by Park & Bob Baker. A Close Shave (1995, 30 mins). Directed by Nick Park. Written by Park & Bob Baker. Voice of Wallace: Peter Sallis