So this weekend we've got a barrage of new movies coming out. But it's also my girlfriend's birthday and she loves cartoons more than even me, so we're heading off to see The Pirates! Band of Misfits (check back for my review of it this Friday... because I doubt we'll get one from our new host). In case the claymation style of the movie looks familiar, it's because the movie is from Aardman Animation, the same studio that has brought us the Wallace and Gromit movie and shorts. Wallace and Gromit for decades now has been called one of the crown jewels of British animation, and I have to be totally honest with you, I tried watching it as a kid (or at least when I was younger) and I just didn't get it. Sure I thought they were nice... very fun and nice and... nice and fun, but that was about it. But recently I noticed that all of their shorts were on Netflix Instant Que and I decided to check them out, watching the ones I'd already seen and getting to see the others for the first time, and I am proud to say that now I finally get it. Maybe I just wasn't mature enough the first time I saw it, although I doubt that because each feature seems to be open to all ages, or maybe my sense of humor has changed over the years, but in the end I have no idea why I didn't really dig them the first time. The important thing is I'm a fan of them now, and just in time too. So in order to prepare everyone for Pirates this weekend, I'm going to run down each of the Wallace and Gromit shorts and the movie and give you a little grade on each.
Wallace and Gromit's first adventure is fairly simple, they want to go on vacation, find out they're out of cheese, so they decide to build a rocket and go to the moon. This is quite possibly their most whimsical adventure (which is saying something since their future adventures involve criminal penguins and were-rabbits), not really because of the fact that they travel into space, but because just like with so many other series when they start off, the creators were still trying to establish exactly what they wanted the series to be. In the future installments of the series, Wallace and Gromit are inventors, and that clearly came from the fact that they build a rocket ship in this film, but in the future installment all their inventions feel more quirky and clever, whereas in this film the idea of the ship and the execution are more of there just for fun, like there weren't very many rules to this universe and it was trying to be more of a classic wacky cartoon where anything could happen. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the future installments have a firmer verisimilitude (holy cow I spelled that right on the first try). Now, that being said, this is still a fine short. Even though it doesn't feel quite like the future installments, it still has the seeds of charm that bloomed later on. For example there's a robot in this film that dreams of being a skier. This may sound like just pure insanity, but it actually makes sense the way they present it, and that's the kind of craft I'm talking about that you find throughout this series.
Final Grade: B
This is where Wallace and Gromit started to find its groove. Where the last short felt more like just a pure slapstick cartoon, this one feels like a real world with its own rules and logic. For Gromit's birthday Wallace builds a set of robotic trousers that will take him on walks (Gromit is a dog in case I hadn't already pointed that out). From here Wallace rents a room out to a penguin who turns out to be a robber who uses these robot pants to steal a priceless jewel. I'd like to just say right now that while this sounds totally nuts, even more so than the last short, it actually seems more real in this one because they've established their pattern and pacing far more clearly. This is the film that made Wallace and Gromit a household name (at least in some parts of the world) and with good reason. Not only is it funny and ends with a great action sequence (which is one of the best I've seen in any claymation film) but it also has this great charm to it that is the driving force behind this series. Combine all this together and its no surprise that this won the Academy Award for Animated Short.
Final Grade: A
With this third installment the equation that made up Wallace and Gromit is finally complete. I say this because in this short the idea of Wallace and Gromit always changing jobs and using their unique inventions to help themselves out is introduced, and that really has provided a whole new level of creativity to this franchise. This is also the first of these films to introduce us to other characters (or human characters I should say) besides the two protagonist. A Close Shave is about our duo working as window washers, but when Wallace gets a crush on one of their customers things get interesting as he discovers her father was also an inventor and he left her a mechanical dog who's been stealing the town's supply of sheep. Once again it's full of laughs and charm, and gives us another fantastic action sequence involving a group of sheep performing acrobatics on a motorcycle, but I have to give this one a slightly lower grade, not really because it did anything wrong, but just because I felt that it hit a lot of the same notes that The Wrong Trousers hit, but that one hit them a tad better.
Final Grade: B+
This is Wallace and Gromit's first trip into the realm of feature length movies and it even won the Oscar that year for best animated film, even beating out Studio Ghibli's film Howl's Moving Castle. This movie really shows what the franchise can be with the correct support, because as I pointed out the last short was the only one to ever show another person outside of Wallace, this one actually shows the rest of the town around these two. We actually get a sense of how they fit in and how the rest of the people operate outside of them. And just as last time we see these two with a brand new job, this time as pest removers, which seems to fit very well with their talent for inventing. And as the title implies the story is about a creature, half man half rabbit, that is coming out at night, threatening to ruin the town fair by eating all the vegetables, which introduces a bit of superstition into a series that's been all about science, but it slides in so naturally that it fits like a pair of robotic pants. Now yes, this movie is fun and very charming just like the previous shorts, but as much as I love these characters part of me is glad that they haven't gone back to feature length films yet. I say this because I keep mentioning the charm behind these films, and that to me is the biggest driving force behind them, that there is just something about them that you can't quite describe but it just makes you warm up to them and feel relaxed by them. But charm is something that's very hard to hold up throughout a feature length film. And while this movie still has it, it's not as present as it is in the shorts. However I would still totally recommend this film if you have a kid, in fact I'd say its probably the one Wallace and Gromit feature that they'd probably dig much more than you just because of how sweet and simple it is.
Final Grade: B
The most recent short to come from this duo might actually be their best one, at least in my opinion. In this short the two of them have now become bakers and Wallace has fallen for a woman who used to be the spokeswoman for a bread baking company. As she moves in, Gromit realizes he's not needed as much and starts to feel like he's being pushed out of their life. However, recently a dozen bakers have been murdered, and Wallace is the next one on the list, and guess who the killer is. I say that this one is probably the best in the series because each installment in the W&G franchise adds something new to it. In The Wrong Trousers we got a sense of the world that they live in, in A Close Shave they added in additional characters to the world, and in Curse of the Were-Rabbit they fully fleshed out the town and the inhabitants within, going beyond just one other person. In this short we really see the accumulated work of each of these previous films coming together, combined with even more sillyness and (I'll say it again because there is no better word for it) charm than we've seen since The Wrong Trousers.
Final Grade: A
In the end Wallace and Gromit really prove that the old cartoons that we watched as kids like Looney Tunes are not gone, and the classic comedy duos and groups we knew from the past are not forgotten, they've just now got a British Accent and are made of clay. As I said there was a time when I just didn't get these cartoons, but even then I could see the quality in them. And when I think about how much I enjoyed their most recent one and I see how much they are still continuing to grow, it really makes me excited to think about where the franchise will go from here.