[24 September 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Is there a director providing a better balance between cartoon light and dark than Nick Park? Oh, you can have your Tex Averys and Tim Burtons, but the genial little Brit behind the stop motion behemoth Aardman continues to find clever ways of mixing the merry with the macabre, taking his Oscar winning creations Wallace (the bumbling inventor) and Gromit (his faithful, far more sensible watchdog) with him. Over the course of four sensational shorts, several specialty clips, and one amazing full length motion picture, our daring duo, these beloved believers in the power of positive tinkering have endeared themselves to a fanbase fed up with cookie cutter clichés and standard cartoon claptrap. And it’s all because of Park’s perfect combination of wit and worry, anarchy and anxiety.
This is especially true of the latest installment in the Wallace and Gromit juggernaut, the drop dead brilliant A Matter of Loaf and Death - new to DVD and Blu-ray from Lionsgate. Featuring yet another wacky business venture by our persistent pair (as the title suggests, they’re bakers) and a love interest for our nerdy hero who may not be what she seems, we get the standard “veddy English”-ness of Aardman’s approach meshed with all manner of horror movie Hitchcock moves. As they have done throughout the previous three installments in the series - A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, and A Close Shave - the claymation masterminds turn a seemingly sweet scenario into something quite sinister - and sensational.
As the proprietors of Top Bun Bakery, Wallace and Gromit find business is booming. Unfortunately, that’s because all the other pastry chefs in town are dying under mysterious circumstances. With orders up and output increasing, the duo needs to focus if they are to have any hope of making their daily quota. Out of the blue, Wallace runs into Piella Bakewell, the former face of Bake-a-Lite breads and cakes. The two begin a whirlwind romance, much to Gromit’s chagrin. Soon, the candle in his owner’s wind starts imposing her oppressive will on their perfect partnership. Our canine companion starts to suspect something odd about Wallace’s newfound love, and with a little investigation, uncovers something that make cost all of them dearly - professionally, and perhaps, even their lives.
Either separately, or as part of the new Wallace and Gromit: The Complete Collection, A Matter of Loaf and Death is a treasure, a treat for the eye and ambrosia for the imagination. Just watching the opening sequence, seeing our familiar faces with their big teeth and expressive eyes interact with a Chaplin-like building-sized bread baking machine is a marvel of technology and talent. One of the best things about the four short compendiums offered here is that you can watch the growth of Aardman’s aesthetic. From the very beginning, when you can make out the actual fingerprints on Wallace’s shirt sleeves to the latter day polish and high production values, the company has always strived to take their titles to the next level, to never rest on their laurels and constantly endeavor to be bigger, better, and braver.
This is certainly true of Loaf and Death. The set-up is stellar, leading to a wonderful cockeyed chase sequence where deliveries are balanced out with a mad dash to catch up with Piella and her prissy poodle, Fluffles. Our amiable antagonist’s house is also a Victorian nightmare suitable for several Hammer films. The scope here is very broad, picking up where the clever feature film Curse of the Were-Rabbit left off and Park pays particularly close attention to our mongrel emotions as well. Gromit gets his far share of heroics, but he is also hurt by Wallace’s abrupt change of heart and friendship about face. When Piella wants to put him out, to take his place so to speak as man’s best friend, the dog’s hurt reaction is devastating.
But Loaf and Death is also a wonderful bit of slapstick, Park proving he learned a great deal from the masters of the silent screen. This has always been true of Aardman’s efforts - from the voiceless Moon robot of Grand Day and the mute penguin boarder of Trousers to the Modern Times contraptions of Shave. The Wallace and Gromit films definitely take the whole mad scientist/absent-minded professor/wacky inventor concept to new, heretofore unexplored heights, never looking down when our duo fails to achieve perfection. Instead, the unkempt nature of their engineering, the very upbeat innocence in what they hope to achieve counterbalanced by the frequent disappointments makes these characters easy to root for.
As part of either the new Loaf DVD or the even better Complete Collection Blu-ray, Lionsgate (who has taken over distribution of these titles) gives us the opportunity to sneak a peek behind the scenes, and it’s a jolly, often sentimental journey. Park discusses with growing embarrassment how it took almost seven years to bring Grand Day to life. He goes on to use his compelling commentary tracks to highlight frustrations, discuss the unreal expectations of his next effort post-Oscars, and why he believes Wallace and Gromit have endured. In conjunction with Making-of featurettes for each film, a compendium of “Cracking Contraptions” (clever blackout skits involving Wallace’s bumbling machinery, and Gromit’s reaction to same) and a gorgeous image remaster (the Blu-ray is stellar in its detail and dimension), we really feel like we’ve come to a greater appreciation of Park’s humble craft.
When one imagines the amount of work it takes to realize one scene in a standard stop-motion animated film (we hear stories of one sequence taking several MONTHS to finish), the wonderful world of Wallace and Gromit becomes even more compelling. Aardman has avoided CG for the most part - the forgettable Flushed Away being the sole exception - and is meticulous in how it controls and cares for its legacy. As a result, quality is part of the principle involved, a desire to never let the audience or the artists down.
Such collaboration confirms Aardman’s status as one of the premiere animation houses in the world, sitting right alongside Warner Brothers and Disney for artform bragging rights. And since they balance their always intriguing efforts with a clever combination of light and dark, twee and slightly terrifying, they’ve also secured their own specialized space. As their latest (and previous greatest) illustrate, no one does this kind of crazed cartooning better than Park and his patented production mavericks. A Matter of Loaf and Death definitely earns its place alongside the other gemstones in Aardman’s cinematic crown.