Wallace & Gromit

Aardman's Big Cheese Is Nick Park

As if our debt to ancient Greece is not great enough (the Olympic games, Pythagoras and Socrates, to say nothing of a good slice of baklava), consider that this great culture of mathematics and philosophy also had a key role in the development of the art we now call animation.

Long before people were arranging series of pictures to be seen through slits on rotating discs, before stick-figure images were projected for the first time on a screen, before Disney harnessed an army of animators to work on celluloid sheets, the Greeks were painting sequential drawings of an athlete in motion on pottery. Not "claymation," exactly, but you get the point.

It is tempting to believe that the Greeks, whose appreciation for comedy was not limited to the plays of Aristophanes, would very much approve our amusement with Wallace and Gromit, the Plasticine creations of animator Nick Park and a comic pair who appear to be on their way to a recognition level occupied by the likes of the Pillsbury Doughboy and Speedy Alka-Seltzer.

Wallace and Gromit are now on screen at the Dobie in "A Close Shave," Park's 1995 Oscar-winner for best animated short, and the anchor film of an anthology from Park's company, Aardman Animations.

For more than a few, the arrival of this latest half-hour of stop-motion comedy and adventure was greeted with the same enthusiasm earlier reserved for Star Wars and Indiana Jones installments.

Granted, the audiences are smaller. But not their enthusiasm.

It is easy to see why.

Most of us came to Wallace and Gromit by way of Park's second film featuring the odd and endearing British duo. "The Wrong Trousers," which won the 1993 Oscar for best animated short, was shown in an anthology at the Dobie a few years ago. About the same time, PBS broadcast the film along with a half-hour documentary on Park. The feature on Park was especially absorbing because it revealed not only details about animation technique but the psychology behind the creation of his characters. This is especially important, because the breadth and depth of Wallace's and Gromit's appeal resides in the texture and subtleties of their characters. No roadrunner and coyote these fellows. As has been written elsewhere, Wallace and his loyal companion resemble nothing so much as an old couple grown form-fittingly comfortable with one another, foibles and all.

The brisk business for "A Close Shave" and Wallace & Gromit: The Best of Aardman Animation could be foreseen in the sales and rentals of videos of "The Wrong Trousers" and Park's first W&G short, "A Grand Day Out." The Internet now hosts not one but several Wallace and Gromit sites. A creamery in Yorkshire, reports one of the Internet sources, will begin selling its Wensleydale cheese (Wallace's favorite) under the Wallace and Gromit label.

The appeal of Park's film is readily apparent to anyone who has seen "The Wrong Trousers" (still, for my money, the best of the trio), and who appreciates the twin virtues of craftsmanship and economy. The craftsmanship -- which includes the abundant detail of the sets, the imaginative and artistic use of lighting, the always appropriate scoring by composer Julian Nott, and, of course, the variety and precision of the characters' expression and movements -- one almost takes for granted. Give any reasonably talented animator enough time and he or she can create the world envisioned. The magic of "The Wrong Trousers" is its narrative skill -- how characters and situations are quickly established, how one bit of business flows seamlessly to the next. There is no wasted motion, nothing skimped and nothing needlessly lingered over. In a scant half hour, "The Wrong Trousers" tells a story of family ties, a mysterious interloper, a daring crime, betrayal -- all capped by a dizzying and hilarious chase on a toy train that suggests both Indiana Jones and Buster Keaton. Not least: Does there exist in the history of animation a voice more fittingly perfect for its character than that of the frumpy Peter Sallis as the cheerfully clueless Wallace?

To see the other Park films in this current Aardman anthology at the Dobie is to know how he arrived at such an affecting duo as Wallace and Gromit. In "Creature Comforts," in which anthropomorphic inhabitants of a zoo rather gamely attempt polite descriptions of their dreadful living conditions, the synthesis of personality and movement, voice and body language is hauntingly, mesmerizingly real. The same holds true for Park's series of commercials for an electric utility, in which various animals, speaking in the unscripted tones of a man-on-the-street interview, extol the virtues of home heating.

We are told that Park may temporarily retire the cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his silent but canny canine. This is just as well, as it is always better to eagerly await than to overindulge. (Perhaps they will take one of those "cheese vacations" Wallace once dreamed of.) No doubt Park will apply the same fine artistry to new characters and situations. With his growing recognition and popularity, it seems almost certain that whatever he produces will be snapped up for distribution in the U.S.

Until then, we can dip from the well with videos. Among their many virtues, Wallace and Gromit movies bear up under repeated viewings.

And now, does anyone care to join me in bit of Gorgonzola? n

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