Cracking bit of toast, Gromit.
Wallace and Gromit are the pet creation of animator Nick Park, and were the characters that boosted Aardman Animations into the big league. Originally famous for making Tony Hart's1 sidekick, Morph, Aardman subsequently produced such Nick Park gems as the Creature Comforts British Gas advertisements, and the film Chicken Run before starting work on the duo's first (and so far only) feature-length film: Curse of the Were-rabbit.
Wallace and Gromit's adventures so far have been stop-motion animated clay cartoons. A Grand Day Out was the first broadcast, in 1989, followed by The Wrong Trousers in 1992 and A Close Shave in 1995: these were each approximately 25 minutes long. Paving the way for the feature-length Curse of the Were-rabbit were 10 animated shorts (2-3 minutes long), released only on the internet. All featured the voice of Peter Sallis (better known as Clegg in Last of the Summer Wine2) as Wallace.
The films were deliberately reminiscent of a (mythical?) bygone age. Wallace habitually wore tank tops over his shirt and tie, and all the characters featured strong Yorkshire accents (think All Creatures Great and Small3 and you'll get the idea). Combine this with modern plot lines and clay animation, and a whole new genre springs up.
A Grand Day Out
Inventor and cheese-lover Wallace, and his long-suffering sidekick dog, Gromit, decide to visit the Moon to replenish their cheese supplies. Building a rocket in their basement, they fly to the Moon. Discovering that the cheese is 'A bit like Wensleydale', they fill a basket full, and prepare to take-off again, only to find themselves dogged by an automaton Moon parking-meter.
The parking meter spends most of his time stranded on the Moon and, after picking up transmissions from Earth, dreams of nothing more than being an Alpine skier on the Moon's cheesy pistes. Awaking when Wallace absentmindedly drops a coin into its slot, it finds that the cheese stalagmites have been broken and pursues Wallace's imminently departing rocket. Grabbing hold of the undercarriage, the parking meter manages to tear off only two struts, as Wallace and Gromit head back to Earth with their cheese hoard. Nevermind, the two struts make a wonderful pair of skis!
Aside from a couple of shorts, this was Nick Park's first animated film. It was his graduation project and, virtually unassisted, it took him seven years to complete. The merit of the film landed him a job at Aardman, and they helped finance it onto British television. The first showing was on Rolf's Cartoon Club4 on ITV, and this paved the way for the BBC buying up the rights to future Wallace and Gromit films.
The film was nominated for the Best Animated Short Oscar, but was beaten by Creature Comforts.
While building the rocket, Gromit's electric drill-bit jams, sending the poor dog spinning round instead.
After a complicated pre-launch routine, Wallace fires up his engines, but the rocket remains firmly on the ground. Why? Gromit's forgotten to take the hand-brake off, of course!
The Wrong Trousers
For Gromit's birthday, Wallace buys him a pair of ex-NASA 'Techno Trousers', under the thinly-veiled guise of getting the trousers to help around the house. Little does Wallace know that Feathers McGraw, the penguin lodger, has a more sinister use for the trousers.
As Wallace begins to treat the lodger with more and more favouritism, Gromit finds himself relegated from a bedroom back to his kennel, and resolves to leave home.
Sitting in a café the next day, Gromit watches Wallace, stuck in the rogue Trousers, which Feathers has been tampering with, removing the control panel and turning it into a remote control. Going back to the house, Gromit discovers Feathers' secret plan and follows him. He watches the penguin make measurements on the outside of a museum, before Feathers returns home and dons his 'chicken' disguise - a red rubber glove on the head.
Feathers, using the remote control, marches Wallace out of bed before he wakes, and takes him into the museum, proceeding to steal the diamond within. Unfortunately, Wallace's semi-conscious body triggers an alarm so penguin and Trousers make a quick getaway.
Back home, as Feathers proceeds to lock Wallace in the wardrobe, he is jumped by Gromit, who after a high-speed pursuit on the model train set, catches the penguin and ties him to the Trousers on their way to jail.
Showing a distinctly more sophisticated plot than its predecessor, The Wrong Trousers was also more smoothly animated - Nick Park modelling Wallace on his own facial expressions from the mirror. Fellow animator Steve Box was employed to animate Feathers, and due credit to him for making a penguin look so evil.
The Wrong Trousers rightly picked up the 1993 Oscar for 'Best Animated Short.'
Gromit, trailing Feathers, hides under a cardboard box, and cuts out eyeholes. On his way past the box, Feathers stops suddenly and peers curiously at the box, then shrugs and moves on. From the outside, we see why: Gromit's eyes coincide exactly with the position of the eyes of the dog drawn on the box.
Gromit gets tipped out of bed by Wallace's wake-up machine, and falls into the breakfast chair. The jam-launcher catapults a plodge of jam at him, but there's no bread in the toaster... Gromit's resigned look - a fraction of a second before the jam hits - is a treasure.
When Feather's McGraw removes his 'disguise' Wallace, in complete and genuine amazement, says 'My God! It's you!'
Running out of track on the final leg of the train chase, Gromit crawls his way to the front of the model train, grabs a box of spare track lying railside, and proceeds to lay track directly in front of him in double-quick time, so that the train can keep moving.
A Close Shave
While carrying out their new window cleaning business on the clock-tower, Wallace spots a lovely lady in the nearby wool shop. Meanwhile, Wendolene's (as she turns out to be called) dog, Preston, sets eyes on Gromit. When Wallace offers to clean Wendolene's windows, Preston hatches a plan...
Meanwhile, Wallace is having trouble with the small sheep that's slowly eating the house, and decides to try out his new Knit-o-Matic on it. Soon, the sheep is bereft of fleece (giving the inevitable name of 'Shaun') and Wallace has a new, if somewhat small, woolly jumper.
On their visit to Wendolene's, Preston puts his plan into action, and frames Gromit for sheep rustling. Gromit is thrown in prison, leaving Preston to carry on his rustling operation in peace.
Wallace gets wind of this evil plan, as Wendolene explains that Preston is an automated dog turned bad, originally invented by her father to be a 'good dog'. With the help of Shaun, Wallace foils Preston, frees a lorryload of sheep and makes plans to set Gromit free. Preston, meanwhile, has his eye on the Knit-o-Matic.
Wallace frees Gromit with the aid of the flock of sheep, and they pursue Preston back to his dog food factory, where Preston has converted the Knit-o-Matic into a dogfood machine. After a long chase, Preston is tipped into his own machine, and Wallace embraces Wendolene.
Later, Wendolene visits Wallace with a re-made, well-behaved Preston and tells him that they could never be a couple because she doesn't like cheese (ahhh!).
Although not as deep in plot or as richly textured as The Wrong Trousers, this film compensates with some classic comedy moments, and some fine animation skills. Produced on a tight, 18-month deadline, the production budget doubled to over £1.3 million, and Park was forced to take a directoral role, as opposed to his accustomed hands-on animation.
'We've tried it [The shearing machine] out on Gromit, haven't we boy?' says Wallace. The pain of recollection on Gromit's face is clear to all.
Rescuing Gromit from prison, the pyramid of sheep collapses on top of Wallace. The single-second frame showing the rain of sheep is a classic.
Pursuing Preston, the entire flock of sheep cram themselves onto Wallace's motorbike. 'Sort yourselves out' shouts Wallace, and they instantly form an inverted 'sheep pyramid' causing a bemused double-take from Preston from the lorry in front.
Gromit's sidecar plunges off a cliff, but not to worry... Press all the buttons at once, and it becomes a perfectly serviceable aeroplane!
In the dog food factory, virtually every character ends up on the fast conveyor belt simultaneously. Press stop for carnage!
Made specially for the internet during a long interim between Close Shave and Were-rabbit, ten 2-3 minute long episodes focussed on Wallace's crazy inventions and the resultant chaos that ensued. None were particularly outstanding, but they provided good fodder for W&G fans in the run-up to the next film's release.
Curse of the Were-rabbit
After five years of painstaking work, Wallace and Gromit's first feature-length adventure was released, to adoration from public and critics alike. Taking claymation to new, unprecedented and frankly quite unhealthily obsessive levels, it was packed full of quaint British humour and laugh-out-loud moments and turned the heroic duo into true global superstars. Guest stars were queueing up to be featured after the success of Chicken Run; the final film featured the voices of Helena Bonham-Carter, Ralph Fiennes and Peter Kay.
Wallace and Gromit are running a humane pest-removal system. In a village obsessed by vegetable growing and showing, they are systematically kidnapping all the local rabbits and keeping them at home, running up a huge food bill.
Wallace has the bright idea of brainwashing the rabbits to dislike vegetables, using his latest piece of gadgetry. It goes wrong, of course, and the machine misfires while it is still attached to the brains of Wallace and an innocent rabbit.
Before too long, a monstrous were-rabbit is terrorising the village (no surprises for guessing where this came from). Meanwhile, Wallace attempts to simultaneously become involved with the charming Lady Tottington and avoid the slimy upper-class twit Victor Quartermaine. It is left to Gromit, of course, to do the hard work and pursue the monster.
Victor Quartermaine manages to pick up a black rabbit instead of his toupée and strides away with a bunny cheerfully waving from the top of his bald pate.
Gromit, sitting in the driving seat of the van, is dragged by the monstrous Were-rabbit through gardens, fences, greenhouses and finally underground. The rope breaks and Gromit slams the steering wheel in frustration, only to be flattened by a belatedly inflating airbag.
The vicar reads 'Nun Wrestling' magazine.
The final chase takes place with Gromit and Victor's dog, Phillip, fighting for control in a coin-operated carousel aeroplane. When it stops midway, they both have to rummage around for loose change. Phillip's pink purse does little to enhance his bull(dog)ish image.
Voiced, as he is, by Peter Kay, the local policeman (PC Mackintosh) is utterly hilarious in every scene and should not be missed. His profligacy with double entendre at the vegetable show5 is not to be missed.
There are far too many genuinely funny moments to list here: the film has been rightly acclaimed as an archetype of quirky British humour, and long may it remain so!
Some Useless Facts
Nick Park has said that the characters of Wallace and Gromit are based on his father and himself, respectively.
Approximately 35,000 frames were used in each of the first three Wallace and Gromit films. Were-rabbit was shot at a slightly lower frame-rate, but this still doesn't account for the fact that well over a mind-boggling 100,000 frames of footage were shot!
Wallace and Gromit live at 62 West Wallaby Street.
Wallace's favourite cheese is Wensleydale.
The Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes, North Yorkshire paid £40,000 for the rights to use Wallace and Gromit for marketing purposes.
In prison, Gromit reads Crime and Punishment by 'Fido Dogstoyevsky'(sic).
All the backgrounds shot in Wallace and Gromit have to be built in distorted perspective, because of the angle of shooting. Traditionally this was never a problem as backgrounds were a simple painted skin in conventional animation.
In 1996, Nick Park (somewhat carelessly) left the models of Wallace and Gromit in a New York taxi cab. The taxi driver thankfully ensured that the models got a heroes' return.
A much worse disaster was to strike in 2005 when fire ripped through a storage warehouse and destroyed nearly all of Aardman Animations' mementoes of the film, including nearly all the sets and storyboards from Were-rabbit
1 Tony was a genial artist on UK children's TV, who made absolutely stunning pictures with minimal effort.
2 A dismally unfunny BBC sitcom, set in West Yorkshire.
3 An affectionately remembered BBC drama series, featuring Christopher Timothy, and based on the books of James Herriot. The series played out episodes from the life of a Yorkshire vet in the 1930s.
4 Hosted by Rolf Harris, a slightly insane Australian who played wobble-boards and showed kids how to paint.
5 Let's face it, a vegetable show lends itself pretty well to innuendo.