That's twenty years, that is. Lumme.
The British film and TV industry doesn't have many world-famous franchises and those we do have tend to have been created in the 1960s. You could stretch that to include the late 1950s if you wanted to include defunct franchises like Hammer horror and the Carry On films. Wallace and Gromit is pretty much unique in being an internationally recognised British brand name that people think of as being modern. What's more, they've done it on the back of a near-infinitesimal number of TV episodes and one (1) movie that was produced under the most trying of circumstances (i.e. a co-production with Dreamworks).
My students in Japan without exception hadn't heard of Star Trek, James Bond or Doctor Who, but they'd all heard of Wallace and Gromit. (Thomas the Tank Engine was also huge among the five-year-olds, incidentally.) A massive part of this success of course was the Oscars. Nick Park just couldn't stop winning the damn things. It was as if Nick Park was the only person capable of beating himself, as for instance when A Grand Day Out failed to win the Oscar for Animated Short Film because Nick Park won it for Creature Comforts instead. I remember telling the partisan locals in 2005 that Howl's Moving Castle was going to lose its Oscar race, for a reason that had nothing to do with Miyazaki already having won for Spirited Away.
The word "modern" should be wildly inappropriate for Wallace and Gromit. The series is twenty years old so far and is approximately set in Wigan in the 1950s. Wallace is voiced by Peter Sallis, a personal friend of Oliver Cromwell who's coming up for his 400th birthday, yet even he's not as old-fashioned as the animation style. Aardman is all about claymation. Even when they use CGI (Flushed Away), they do so in a claymation style with CGI-generated thumbprints. The results are lovely, needless to say, albeit with a few quirks. The most obvious one is water, which explains the CGI in Flushed Away, but there's also something weird about the Aardman-verse's women. It's clearly a stylistic choice, but even so it's remarkable to see Wallace's love interests get uglier and less human over time. Wendolene in A Close Shave is just a female Wallace, but Lady Tottington and Piella are practically monsters. If you saw those two while out on safari, you'd shoot them.
A Grand Day Out is very different to all the others that followed. It was Nick Park's graduation project for the National Film and Television School and it took six years to make, working on it part time alongside his day job at Aardman Animations. He started it in 1982. Peter Hawkins was going to do Gromit's voice and even did a recording, but it was never used after Park realised how much Gromit could express with his eyebrows and body language. What's interesting about this one is how slow and crude it is... but in a good way. The claymation would never again look this rough, but thumbprints and hand-made charm is what Wallace and Gromit are all about. At times it looks like a student film, but that's because it is a student film. Meanwhile I love the pace. It takes courage to tell a story this leisurely, especially in animation where producing a second's worth of film takes all day. However the jokes here are all the funnier for being delayed action, while it's impressive to see how compelling Park can make a scene of Wallace gently pottering about his business.
This is the one where they go to the moon because it's made of cheese and find that it's inhabited by a coin-operated robot. This is so completely mad that I'd love to see them take it further. If one infers the existence of a lunar robot-building capitalist civilisation, does that mean they might come to visit us one day? There's a gag headline on this subject in The Wrong Trousers ("Moon cheese shares soar"), but I'm thinking bigger than that.
The Wrong Trousers is more conventionally paced and animated. That doesn't mean it's bad, of course. This is the one with the mechanical trousers and the penguin, who has has no expression whatsoever. Gromit's a bit Buster Keaton-like in his perpetual deadpan, but the face of Feathers McGraw might as well have been carved from stone. He's still cool, though. I wasn't completely convinced by the speed of Gromit's decision to leave home, but on the upside this is the one where Park discovers the comedy potential of an all-action ending. I'd been thinking this wasn't one of the funny ones until then.
There's also a bit of Film Noir homage here. It's oddly surprising to see actual direction, with pans, shadows, camera angles and so on.
A Close Shave is the one that establishes the Wallace and Gromit formula. Wallace has a love interest, Gromit meets another dog and the two of them are running some kind of small business in a story that's likely to contain in-jokes, genre parodies and/or comedy with animals. In this case, that would be sheep. Some of the best laughs here come from our woolly friends. Meanwhile the movie nods include Terminator (1 and 2) and maybe James Bond, although at this point they're not yet too blatant. Oh, and this is the first Aardman-verse appearance of Bob the Baker, a claymation version of Park's co-writer Bob Baker. The face even looks like him!
I've used the word "formula", but that wasn't really a criticism. It works. This film's another winner and I particularly like the idea of pairing up Gromit with another dog. You can have fun designing a completely different breed of dog each time without being forced into Disturbing Alien Monster territory as with Wallace's women.
Cracking Contraptions I'd initially written off as just DVD extras, but they were actually broadcast on BBC1 over the Christmas period in 2002. They're ten mini-episodes of two minutes each, but altogether they're the same length as A Grand Day Out. What's more, there's something pure about them. There's no plot. Each one's nothing more than the briefest of comedy shorts about another of Wallace's inventions. They get straight to the point, they have a better gag rate than the main features and they're a refreshing change of pace. The genre parodies are perhaps less funny than some of the other mini-episodes (e.g. Apollo 13 becomes Shopper 13), but there are some excellent laughs here and if you watch it all at once it feels like proper Wallace and Gromit, not just a throwaway break between the real stuff. I slightly regretted the Auto-chef being able to speak, but I suppose it's worth it for his last line.
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
is of course a full-length feature film and as such deserves a more in-depth look than it's going to get here. I reviewed it separately. Suffice to note that it's as excellent as usual, but it also adheres to the formula I previously observed. The genre they're parodying this time is Hammer horror, which is cool.
Finally (so far) we come up to date with A Matter of Loaf and Death. There will certainly be more Wallace and Gromit, but this is all they've made so far. I discovered that it fits into the series better than I'd thought when I saw it at Christmas, but its genre parodies are getting ever more explicit (Aliens, Psycho, Ghost, the 1966 Batman film) with shot-for-shot recreations of the original. It's a fitting continuation, just as funny as its predecessors and particularly impressive in how well it pulls off its underplayed wordless romance between two non-human claymation characters who can only act through their eyes and body language. Seriously, that was really good.
Overall, this is a remarkable franchise. It's as widely loved as it is because every single episode is so damn good. Even if you'd only seen one of them, you'd immediately be off trying to buy the others on DVD because you'd never be able to believe that there weren't any. It's also starting to turn into a proper TV series, with half-hour episodes and everything, as opposed to just a bunch of one-off mini-films. Wallace and Gromit are charming characters in a lovable world, animated by someone who's one of the best in the world at what he does. We're lucky to have him.