Film

Wallace and Gromit: The Complete Collection (Blu-ray)


A Good Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave, A Matter of Loaf and Death

Director: Nick Park
Cast: Peter Sallis, Anne Reid, Sally Lindsay, Melissa Collier
Distributor: Lionsgate
Studio: Aardman Animations
UK Release Date: 2009-09-22
US Release Date: 2009-09-22

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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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