(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)
The story of the most beloved characters in the history of British animation begins with the invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 by the Military Junta of Argentina. Corporal Nick “Rottweiler” Park of Her Majesty’s Northumberland Fusiliers returned home from the war as a hero with over nine hundred certified enemy kills and was lauded in the press and both houses of parliament as the man who had almost single-handedly won the conflict for Great Britain. However, Park found it almost impossible to adjust to civilian life and, after an argument with a local grocer over the price of a packet of Cheese and Onion crisps, ended up taking the entire rural village of Dutchington-on-Fenth hostage. Incarcerated in Dartmoor prison, Park’s life was changed forever when a relative gave him the gift of a camera and some plasticine. Park later said that he was able to channel his uncontrollable urges to kill into plasticine figures, which he would use to stage horrendously violent scenes with the camera, teaching himself the basics of stop-motion animation in the process. “Once I got all that out of my system” Park would later say “I started experimenting with films where the characters didn’t kill everyone who ever crossed me, and Wallace and Gromit kind of came from that stepping outside of my comfort zone.” Upon being released from prison…
Oh, hello Nick Park. To what do I owe the pleasure?
Yes? What of it?
Ah. See, I don’t know how to tell you this Nick but…you’re too nice. The animators I cover on this blog tend to be half mad geniuses tormented by demons the likes of which normal men can scarcely conceive of. I mean, have you even met Walt Disney?
Oh. Oh, you sweet summer child. But anyway, you’ll understand if I had to jazz up your life story a little for the intro. Sorry. Anyway, Wallace and Gromit.
It feels almost gauche to refer to Wallace and Gromit as a “franchise”. And yet, these characters are a pretty massive enterprise. Four short films, one feature, numerous spin-offs, comics, computer games, all manner of merchandise and huge global brand recognition. And yet, Wallace and Gromit have never felt “big”. The series has always had a kind of cosy, intimate charm that is thoroughly English while somehow appealing to a worldwide audience. The premise of the series is simplicity itself: Wallace (Peter Sallis) is a cheese-loving inventor with more technical skill than common sense. Gromit, his dog, is his loyal, long-suffering straight man. The first movie, A Grand Day Out, was begun by Park in 1982 when he was still in film school and finally finished eight years later with help from Aardman Animation who had hired Park to work for them. Today’s movie, The Wrong Trousers, is the second Wallace and Gromit short and is pretty unanimously considered to be the best of the series.
Why is it so good? Let’s take a look.
While Gromit is out for mandatory cybernetic walkies, Wallace tallies up the household’s budget and discovers that they’re almost broke what with all that they’re spending on groceries, utilities and that time they went to the moon. To bring in some money, Wallace decides to rent out the guest room. Before long, someone has come to look at the room.
The scene where the Penguin (aka Feathers McGraw) arrives at 62 West Wallaby Street demonstrates why The Wrong Trousers is not simply a great cartoon like A Grand Day Out but is actually a great film. The camera, which has largely been static until now, slowly zooms in on Gromit’s face as he listens to Wallace talking to the Penguin in the hallway, creating a sense of mounting unease. Suddenly, Julian Nott’s score, which has been all friendly colliery band music up until now, shifts into a dark, noir-influenced theme. And then the moment where Gromit first sees the Penguin, who suddenly gazes back at him which causes Gromit to physically flinch. That last one was actually a happy accident, the animators originally intended the Penguin to slowly turn to look at Gromit but the model was too simple to do it effectively so instead they had him suddenly snap his head around. It all works to make it very clear that there is something very wrong with this penguin. Like Gromit, the Penguin is a silent character. But whereas Gromit’s face is so expressive that he’s an open book to us, the Penguin is utterly, totally inscrutable. And that’s really what makes him so scary.
Wallace shows the Penguin the guest room but the Penguin instead makes himself at home in Gromit’s room. Wallace is too embarrassed to make a fuss so Gromit has to move into the spare room. As they fix the room up, Gromit makes use of some of the special features of the Techno Trousers to make the job easier, using the trousers’ suction-cup feet to walk on the ceiling. This catches the beady, inscrutable eye of the Penguin, which makes Gromit more than a little uneasy.
The Penguin now slowly begins to replace Gromit in Wallace’s affections. Will actually, not really “slowly”. More like “instantaneously” and this is going to be my one and only criticism of this movie and it’s really a minor one. Gromit decides to leave home almost immediately after the Penguin arrives and it feels kind of rushed. Inevitable really given that the movie is only thirty minutes long but I can’t help feeling like a minute or so could have been cut from the jewel heist to give more time to the Penguin driving a wedge between Wallace and Gromit. As it is, it feels less like Gromit is convinced his master no longer loves him, and more like he just took the first excuse to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Which….would actually make perfect sense. Never mind. Anyway, Gromit packs a bindle and leaves in the dead of night, stopping only to gaze back at the house one last time before heading into the stormy night. This is quite possibly the first time a rain effect was ever achieved in a stop motion film (apparently they got the effect by putting tiny blobs of glycerin on a pane of glass and then blowing them frame after frame) and it looks perfect. And from the window, the Penguin watches menacingly and then gets to work on the Techno Trousers.
The next morning, Wallace wakes to find that he’s been dumped out of bed and is now wearing Title of Movie. What’s worse, the controls have been removed and the Trousers start stamping around town seemingly with a mind of their own. We now see that the Techno Trousers are incredibly powerful, capable of running at vast speeds and leaping hundreds of feet into the air and basically turning Wallace into topless Iron Man. Meanwhile, Gromit is searching for accommodation but can’t find anywhere willing to rent to a stray dog with no references. And cue the music.
He does, however, see a wanted poster for a chicken that seems oddly…familiar somehow.