"Wallace & Gromit: The First Three Adventures"

A digital trip inside the world of master animator Nick Park and Aardman Animation -- before "Chicken Run."

Published November 28, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

"Wallace & Gromit: The First Three Adventures"
Directed by Nick Park
Fox; full screen 1.33:1
Extras: four of Park's early animations, excerpts from "Inside The Wrong Trousers," BBC Christmas interstitials

Before "Chicken Run," Nick Park and Aardman Animation invented and refined every trick, theme and technique that would make it to their first feature in three 30-minute Wallace & Gromit short films. "A Grand Day Out," "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave" introduced dowdy cheese-loving Englishman Wallace, an inventor who engineered complicated cog-and-gear contraptions, and Gromit, his cerebral dog who knits, reads about electronics and saves Wallace every time he gets himself in a pinch.

With incredibly detailed stop-motion action -- with special attention paid to getting facial expressions on the screen -- the three features delight in allusions to classic films (Hitchcock especially), Rube Goldberg-type machines (the mechanical trousers that Wallace invents to walk Gromit), crafty villains (a sweating penguin) and stylized, action-packed chase scenes.

The DVD is a treat if only for the freeze-frame clarity allowed by the pause button. When still, Park's meticulous details pop into high relief. In one scene in "A Grand Day Out" the flower-print wallpaper inside Wallace and Gromit's homemade rocket matches the decoration of their house. In others, you can inspect the perfect noir shadows in "The Wrong Trousers" or check out the rocket sketches that now hang on the wall of their house.

There are some quality issues with the DVD. The sound is in Dolby 2.0, which is already dated. And there were rough side borders in "The Wrong Trousers" that were distracting and annoying. The extra material barely makes up for the technical shortcomings. The main attractions are test shots done for the stars and early pokes at animation by Nick Park. The latter are atrociously rough ("Rat and the Beanstalk") and even a bit mean-spirited ("Walter Goes Fishing"), far short of anything realized with "Wallace & Gromit." The Christmas interstitials are nicer -- and a good window into the dozens of clever commercials produced by Aardman -- but over before they start.

After three half-hours of perfectly executed stop-motion direction the technique seems a lot less impressive than it does in the first few minutes. A short behind-the-scenes feature on the DVD fixes that. In it, we're reminded of how difficult it is to bring these characters to life; "A Grand Day Out" took six years to construct; just to make characters smile or blink is an all-day chore. The elaborate mini-sets are nearly as lively. All three of these films were nominated for Academy Awards, and only "A Grand Day Out" didn't win.

By Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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