[30 September 2009]
PopMatters Associate Interviews Editor
Lovable British stop-motion icons Wallace and Gromit return to screens this year for their fourth short film, A Matter of Loaf and Death. While the pair are as likable and fun to watch as ever, the producers seem to have taken a cue from the titular wacky-inventors, and put the series on auto-pilot.
As the film starts, middle-aged Wallace and his more intelligent (but less verbose) dog Gromit are up to their usual tricks. Using their trademark over-the-top contraptions (although they seem to have less of a tendency to malfunction this time around), they have started a bakery-and-delivery-service, Top Bun, run out of their windmill-equipped terrace house. Business is good, but as usual, there is danger up ahead, as a mysterious serial killer has been going around and killing off all the local bakers. Gromit is naturally concerned, but Wallace is nonplussed, claiming that less bakers means less competition for Top Bun.
Love interests for the pair suddenly emerge when they save Piella Bakewell, a former pin-up-girl for bread giant “Bake-o-Lite”, from a near-fatal bicycle accident. Along with her shy, Gromit-loving poodle Fluffles, she starts frequenting Wallace and Gromit’s bakery, and before too long, Wallace and Piella are engaged. Unfortunately, Gromit is stumbling upon increasingly obvious signs that Piella may have something to do with the baker-murders. With Wallace making his usual mistake of trusting complete strangers over his loyal pooch, it is up to Gromit to get to the bottom of the serial-killer mystery, and possibly save his master’s life in the process.
It’s an exciting story, perfectly paced over the film’s short 30-minute time span, and there are plenty of laughs to be had. Moments like Wallace’s willingness to throw a soon-to-explode bomb into Yorkshire instead of his duck pond, or Fluffles girlish attempt to charm Gromit with an ancient box of vinyl, are funny enough to get kids and their parents laughing at the same time. The film also carries on the series’ ongoing dark streak, as the writers are not afraid to present a serial killer as a main character in a children’s movie.
And as much as Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park continues to shove the same old jokes about Wallace’s love of cheese and his love interests’ abiding un-sexiness down the audience’s throats, it somehow never gets old. It’s a testament, really, to what perfectly conceived characters Wallace and Gromit are. Wallace, with his calming Northern accent and caravaner-meets-mad-professor set of interests, seems like such a real character that it’s hard to believe he’s made out of clay. And Gromit, with his unending loyalty to his dimwitted master, and his mix of intellectual curiosity and practical competence, is a perfect Sancho to Wallace’s small-town Don Quixote.
At the same time, however, the Wallace and Gromit franchise seems to be running out of steam. The first Wallace and Gromit film, A Grand Day Out was a surreal little piece about Wallace’s quest to find cheese by building a home-made rocket and flying to the moon, where the heroes meet an intelligent, skiing obsessed vending machine. The Wrong Trousers, conversely, was a distinctly different caper story about Gromit’s attempts to thwart an evil penguin who uses an unknowing Wallace to pull-off major crimes, placing the familiar characters from the first film in a new situation. Third film A Close Shave added the new elements of a love interest for Wallace and the application of the duos invention skills to a business plan, but 2005’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit seemed to just be re-hashing ideas from the previous two movies but in a feature-length format.
And A Matter of Loaf and Death adds little to this oft-repeated formula. Wallace and Gromit start a business; that business brings them into contact with some sort of bad guy; Wallace meets someone special; Gromit finds out that that someone is actually connected to (or is) the bad guy; Wallace doesn’t believe him and his and Gromit’s relationship becomes strained as a result; Wallace comes around; a big battle ensues; and finally, the good guys win and Wallace and Gromit go back to their usual domestic bliss.
Were-Rabbit and Loaf and Death do bring one new element to the mix, but one that’s not necessarily welcome. Were-Rabbit, by parodying the Harry Potter series, brought direct pop-culture references into the comedy of Wallace and Gromit, while the earlier films had focused more on oblique allusions to general classic-movie themes and relied more on the details of middle-class British life for their depth and their laughs. Scenes in Loaf and Death, like the Ghost reference where Wallace and Piella model clay (bread?) to the strains of “Unchained Melody,” use direct parody (and meta-humor) to get the giggles, and while they are admittedly funny, they really do detract from the film as a whole.
Part of the charm of Wallace and Gromit has always been that they exist in their own little world, which has similarities to small-town England but is also somewhere quite different. The cars, the animals, the women, are all distinct from those in our world, and romantic-movies from the 1980s just don’t seem to belong there. Animated films of the 2000s, like the Shrek series, have banked in on magical worlds that overflow with hip-cultural references, but Wallace and Gromit have been wildly successful for years without ever having to be ‘cool,’ so there’s no need to start now. Shrek may like to wink at the camera, but Walace and Gromit work best when they’re utterly deadpan.
A Matter of Loaf and Death is only half an hour in length, so the extras actually constitute the majority of the DVD versions content. There’s a “How They Donut” documentary about the production of the film, which shows the always fascinating (but laborious) process that goes into making these movies. The story-lines may have gotten a bit stale, but the enthusiasm the animators have for the series is clearly still at maximum levels, which hopefully bodes well for the series’ future.
There’s also a demo of a Wallace and Gromit video-game, which is fun but definitely designed for the kiddies. The extra that most fans will end up watching directly after the main feature is a short clip starring A Close Shave‘s Shaun the Sheep, in which he and his fellow sheep fight over a cabbage (which they want to use for a game of football) with the local pigs (who want to eat it). It’s a fun little piece, and it just goes to show that when Park and crew are willing to try, they’ve still got something new to show to their audience.