Five years ago, in what must have been an animation history first, Nick Park, the creator of the scrupulous inventor Wallace and his well-read dog Gromit, lost them in the trunk of a taxi in Manhattan. When the clay models were found and returned to Park two days later, the Los Angeles Times ran a photo of Wallace and Gromit on the front page of its calendar section above the caption, "Safe and Sound." It was as if they had been kidnapped.
How did we come to care enough about Wallace and Gromit to worry about their physical whereabouts? Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny, and Buzz Lightyear can't be lost because they don't exist as individual creatures, only as thousands of drawings—in Lightyear's case, as computer-generated ones. Like many parents, I have seen, more than once, the three short films that have made Wallace and Gromit famous—A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, and A Close Shave. But it was while I was watching all three in a row at a screening of Nick Park's World: the Eccentric Adventures of Wallace and Gromit, a retrospective on view at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York and Los Angeles until June 3, that I began to understand why they have become part of the small canon of great art for children.
The retrospective opens with Park's five-minute film Creature Comforts, which won the first of his three Academy Awards. Originally the fifth in a series of "Conversation Pieces" produced for Britain's Channel 4 by Aardman Animations, it uses clay animals to illustrate real audio interviews with immigrants, children, and the elderly (click here to watch it). These monologues and dialogues are often very funny. A jaguar compares habitats in Brazil and England: "Here, you live in a very small space, with all the technological advances possible. You have everything sorted out—double-glazing, you know, your heating and everything. But you don't have space." A few of the interviewees are pleased with their situation, in a timid sort of way, but a gorilla, squatting in the corner of her cage, speaks for many when she says, "Well, sometimes you can't get out and about as much as you'd like to. You're stuck in for some reason, like I'm stuck in today. And then you get fed up with looking at the same four walls." In the museum's program, Creature Comforts is followed by a number of commercials for the Electricity Board that Park made in the early '90s. They take up the same theme: A parrot tells us that only proper heating made it possible for him to live in England.
The urge to find the right kind of domestic life is at the heart of all Park's work. This is clearest in the Wallace and Gromit films, which depict the interior of 62 West Wallaby St. with unusual devotion. Most of Wallace's inventions—an oatmeal dispenser that shoots breakfast into a bowl, a toaster that pops toast up into the air to receive its slathering of jam, "techno-trousers" that will take the dog for "walkies"—are for home use. Even when, in A Grand Day Out, he and Gromit build a spaceship to travel to the moon when they've run out of cheese, it is decorated inside just like their house is, down to the wallpaper. In playgrounds, at least the ones I go to, this obsession with the domestic has a curious analogue. You rarely hear kids discussing Wallace or Gromit outside or playing games that include them as characters, whereas a day hardly goes by when I don't hear Buzz Lightyear's trademark phrase, "To infinity and beyond!" yelled out from the top of the climber. At home, on the other hand, it is easy to imagine either Wallace or Gromit coming to your tea party, if not both.
The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave are Park's masterpieces to date, and these, too, have the restoration of domestic comfort as their dominant theme. In The Wrong Trousers, Wallace, forced to take in a boarder to make ends meet, unwisely chooses a career criminal, a penguin named Feathers McGraw, as "a paying guest." McGraw recognizes the potential of Wallace's remote control operated dog-walking trousers as an alarm-eluding tool for diamond theft. He ingratiates himself with Wallace—"nice spot of Bordeaux, this," Wallace says to him late one night while Gromit, displaced, suffers outside—and then uses his landlord as ballast for the trousers. He steals the diamond, but is foiled by Gromit, who captures him with the aid of Wallace, a model train, some handy spare train track, and a milk bottle. In A Close Shave, the proprietor of a wool shop with whom Wallace falls in love is also the owner of a "cyberdog" named Preston, who, in the midst of a wool shortage, has turned to sheep rustling, first to supply the shop with yarn and then to make his own brand of dog food. Gromit, now fighting canine vs. canine, is framed for the crimes, but after a stupendous car chase during which the oatmeal-gun is deployed as a weapon, he maneuvers to run Preston through the Mutton-O-Matic that the evil cyberdog designed from stolen blueprints of Wallace's Knit-O-Matic.
Film critics have made a habit of pointing out that the physical techniques undergirding Park's work mean nothing without his great character-driven plots, not to mention subtle, parent-friendly invocations of everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Brief Encounter. But this is really selling Park's abilities short. Stop-motion animation requires that its practitioners move the clay figures at the center of the story (they are actually made of plasticine) 24 times per second of film. That is, you move them to their new position, halt, film, halt, move them to their new position, halt, film, halt, and so on. It takes a day to make two or three seconds of usable film. (You can actually do this at home, if you have a video camera that takes shots frame by frame and more patience than normal.) Such animation cannot be done perfectly—Park likes to joke that the slight jerkiness of the clay figures "adds an edge of earthiness"—but the imperfection of the form is one of its great charms.
The extraordinary model train and car chases, the inexorable machinations of the corrupted "technotrousers" and Knit-O-Matic, and the death-defying creatures who are caught up in their gears have the quivering breathless feeling of the best silent film comedy because we know they are a physical achievement on the part of the filmmaker, just as it was for Harold Lloyd hanging off the hands of the breaking clock in Safety Last. This makes Nick Park's clay animation quite different from the computer animation of the "Toy Story" films or the drawings of Disney, which partly explains how we could feel that he was actually losing real creatures when he left Wallace and Gromit in a cab. The fact that Gromit never speaks, and hardly makes any sound at all, really, runs counter to the usual practice for animated animals and brings him back in time toward his silent reel predecessors. (In the overly celebrated Chicken Run, on the other hand, recognizable adult actors impersonate the voices of the leading chickens, just as they do in the "Toy Story" films and most recent Disney and DreamWorks extravaganzas. Even the lovely performance of Julie Sawalha as Ginger, in which she essentially reprises the role of the level-headed, stuffy-but-winning Saffron Monsoon from Absolutely Fabulous, cannot mask the encroaching, impersonal unquirkiness of the movie, despite its many fine sequences.)
Though there are no children on screen in the Wallace and Gromit series, the presence of a child's imagination is felt unmistakably, and not only because Wallace was originally modelled on Park's father, who was also an inventor. Wallace's and Gromit's constant tinkering, reengineering, and all-around puttering certainly resemble the manipulations of the unseen hand of a grown-up animator, but they also mimic the way a child finds her way into the world. No invention in Nick Park's world works only as intended, which is just how kids like it.