It all started in 1989 with A Grand Day Out, a feather-light tale about a bald-headed, slightly eccentric cheese enthusiast named Wallace who decides to take the ultimate cheese vacation — to the moon — and, with the aid of his trusty dog Gromit, builds a rocket ship in his own cellar.
Cheese, not technology or inventing, was Wallace’s first love; the rocket was merely a means to an end, and there was no clear indication at the time of Wallace’s inclination to improve all aspects of human existence with gadgets and gizmos. By the 1993 sequel, The Wrong Trousers, the full Wallace & Gromit premise was firing on all cylinders.
Along with the 1995 threequel A Close Shave, British Claymation guru and Aardman Animations co-founder Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit trilogy — variously released as Wallace & Gromit: Three Amazing Adventures, Wallace & Gromit: The First Three Adventures or The Incredible Adventures of Wallace and Gromit — are hilarious, brilliant half-hour masterpieces jam-packed with dazzlingly inventive sight gags and quintessentially eccentric British humor.
A Grand Day Out, the slightest of the three, reveals Park focused on developing his technique. The Wrong Trousers remains the series’ high point, an astonishingly inventive sci-fi thriller spoof pitting our heroes against a fiendishly clever criminal mastermind who is also a master of disguise. Last is the almost equally good A Close Shave, a comic tale of romance and noir-like mystery involving a sheep-rustling operation.
What makes Park’s little gems (especially the Oscar-winning latter two) so rewarding for film lovers is the way Park lovingly evokes whole genres and cinematic conventions through attention to every element of the moviemaking process: lighting and shadow, score, art direction, even pacing and timing. Park’s more recent feature film Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit gave him the opportunity to extend his genre satire — and the redoubtable Jeeves & Wooster duo’s dotty world — on a bigger canvas. At the same time, the very crispness and brevity of the shorts is part of their charm.
After Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Park returned to his roots with another Wallace & Gromit short, A Matter of Loaf and Death. It’s a pleasant lark, but the least impressive of the duo’s outings since A Grand Day Out. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the bounce has gone from their bungee, but the formula is wearing thin. Just once, I’d like to see Wallace save Gromit, rather than the other way around. Still, it’s enjoyable fun.
Meanwhile, Shaun the Sheep, a supporting character from A Close Shave, has his own spin-off series on British television. The seven-minute episodes feature a sheep named Shaun (get it?), originally introduced in the third “Wallace & Gromit” short, “A Close Shave,” as part of a flock on a small English farm with a trio of mischievous pigs, a tolerant farm dog named Bitzer who tries to keep order, a stereotypically nasty housecat, and a dim-witted, near-sighted farmer who speaks only in mumbles.
Shaun’s adventures are simple enough to engage the youngest viewers, but clever enough to entertain older kids and grown-up fans. It’s an archetypal example of how good family entertainment can be. The pilot episode, “Off the Baa,” sums up everything that’s great about the show: When a head of cabbage comes rolling into the field, Shaun takes an experimental bite—then kicks it up like a soccer ball, then begins juggling and balancing it like a show-off footballer … much to the fascination of the impressed flock, who soon split up into teams. When Bitzer comes over blowing his whistle, it looks like he’s going to break it up. But no, he’s just playing referee.
It’s that odd blend of naivete and sophistication that’s the hallmark of the show. The sheep are wide-eyed and curious about everything, but also savvy and familiar with the ways of the world. To cite a couple of Toy Story reference points, they combine the wonder and innocence of the three-eyed rubber aliens (“OoOOo!”) with the knowingness of Hamm the piggy bank (“Oh, I seriously doubt he’s getting this kind of mileage”)—all of course without any dialogue. In “Saturday Night Shaun,” when the farmer gets a new CD player and throws out his old vinyl records and player, the sheep examine the discarded equipment inquisitively and try playing frisbee with the records—but as soon as Shaun plugs it in and they get the tunes going, they set up a dance club in the barn, with Bitzer acting as bouncer (Pidsley the cat: on the list; Naughty Pigs: no).
The running gag is that while Shaun’s ovine posse get into all kinds of un-sheep-like escapades, Bitzer and Shaun collude to make sure the farmer never notices anything strange. Occasionally the sheep must make covert incursions into the farmhouse; other times the farmer dallies in the farmyard, dabbling in oil painting, sheep shearing or some other unwonted activity. Silliness ensues.
Like most of Aardman’s output, the “Shaun” episodes spoof various cinematic genres and and conventions. They also amount to modern animated slapstick silent films: The characters have no dialogue, except for animal noises from the animals and inarticulate grunting from the farmer. Although Aardman makes the most of the soundtrack, with clever effects and a generally spare score, Shaun and friends are essentially successors to the comedic tradition of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin by way of “Road Runner” and “Tom & Jerry,” with a goofy creative twist that’s all Aardman.
I’m a huge fan of watching silent films with children (Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother or Buster Keaton’s The General are ideal starting places). Between Wall‑E, Mr. Bean and Shaun the Sheep, the joys of silents seem to be enjoying a sort of mini-resurgence in family entertainment.
Standout season 1 episodes include “Shaun the Farmer,” in which the farmer takes sick and Bitzer takes care of him (when he’s not playing video games), leaving the farm chores to Shaun; “Stick With Me,” in which the flock gets into some sticky situations with super-glue; and “Shaun Encounters,” in which a pair of aliens land on the farm at night and cause havoc.
Until the release of Season One, Shaun’s adventures were available only via one-disc collections of first eight and later six episodes. Once we have Season Two, those discs will be obsolete (give them away to friends!). It’s shameful double-dipping, but the material is so good they can get away with it. (Also, a small packaging annoyance: The case is twice as thick as a typical DVD case, though there’s no reason for it to be. Both discs are mounted on the back of the case with a typical overlapping media tray, so why not a standard width case?)
Less incidental is the fact that the Season One set, like all the earlier discs from Lionsgate, crops Shaun’s adventures to fullscreen—a pan-and-scan presentation of a show that was shot and originally aired in widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio), so part of the picture has been lost. Memo to Lionsgate: Family audiences have been happily buying widescreen animation DVDs and Blu-rays from Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks and Fox for years. Why are you skimping on Shaun the Sheep? He deserves better, as do we. (Readers who have an all-region DVD player can order Shaun’s complete adventures from UK Amazon and actually get the complete picture.)
On the plus side, the Lionsgate set offers the full complement of bonus features from the Region 2 edition, including a number of brief featurettes, a sing-along version of the opening song and a couple of simple games. You’ll probably watch those once; the episodes you’ll watch again and again.
Link to this item
If you want your Aardman animations even smaller-screened (say 256x192 pixels, usually one-bit color) you should check out the 12 or so animations they did for the Japanese internet service provider Hatena, and their Flipnote Studio portal.
(Flipnote Studio being the freebie flipbook-animation application that Nintendo released for their DSi handheld game system — users all over the world have been able to create simple animations using the DSi’s touchscreen and upload them to Hatena’s Flipnote Studio website. If you want a good window into an eight-year-old’s soul, give them an animation program and watch what they produce.)
They’re not much, but it’s further proof that in the hands of a master, even the most basic tools can create something sublime (or at the very least whimsically amusing — I mean diverting!).
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.