And now for something completely different.
If you haven’t heard of Wallace and Gromit, it’s time you got plugged in, because these claymation characters have had some wonderful adventures. Wallace is a brilliant but scatterbrained scientist, and Gromit is an intelligent but silent dog. The two characters have a sort of Inspector Gadget/Brain relationship, in which Gromit constantly has to bail Wallace out of trouble of his own inadvertent making, and the formula never fails to entertain.
Wallace and Gromit starred in three televised specials: A Grand Day Out (Oscar-nominee), The Wrong Trousers (Oscar-winner), and A Close Shave (another Oscar-winner). So successful were they that they went on to a big-screen feature, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (which also won an Oscar). I find, however, that the long format doesn’t suit these two very well. The Wrong Trousers, which fits into a half-hour, feels better paced than the movie, and it’s still the best cartoon that Aardman has yet made.
The Wrong Trousers starts off with a rather simple scene: Gromit spends his birthday morning collecting the mail and preparing breakfast. On paper, this sounds quite dull; not the sort of thing you’d want to start your cartoon with. However, the animation has an easy, languid quality that’s incredibly attractive, and that makes even ordinary actions fun to watch. It invests us almost instantly, too: we get the sense this is a (relatively) realistic world we’ve entered into, where life is really all about enjoying a good cuppa. It doesn’t matter that it’s a clay dog selling us on this, either; our minds are already hooked into this place. Just watching old Wallace eat his toast with jam invariably makes me hungry for a slice of my own. How does that work?
Anyway, poor Gromit is feeling pretty neglected. Wallace behaves as though he’s forgotten the doggy’s birthday, and though that turns out to be a ruse, his gift doesn’t help matters.
It’s a pair of mechanical “techno-trousers,” which can be programmed to walk over predetermined routes with its front control panel. With a lead attached, they’re the perfect automated dog-walkers. Gromit isn’t too thrilled with the present, though. For one thing, the trousers move too quickly for Gromit to enjoy his trips, and for another, it seems as though Wallace only got them so that the two could spend less time together.
So when budget troubles cause Wallace to let out a room to an emotionless penguin…
…the sensitive Gromit really starts to feel unwanted.
This odd lodger insists on taking Gromit’s room instead of the spare. In the mornings he hogs the bathroom, and fetches Wallace’s paper and slippers before Gromit can. At night, he chuckles over cheese and wine with Wallace, and then leaves his radio on at full blast, even when he goes out.
Also, he has this unexpected interest in those techno-trousers.
Feeling that he’s lost Wallace’s favor, Gromit runs away, and moves into a rubbish can. Then, one morning, he wakes to see Wallace wandering around town, stuck in the techno-trousers! The machine’s control panel is missing, and Wallace has no idea who’s operating them. Gromit is no dummy, though, and he decides to do a little snooping.
Gromit tails the penguin into an alley, where he takes cover inside a cardboard box and witnesses some strange behavior.
Mysterious music plays, and we watch through Gromit’s eyes as the penguin scribbles notes, scales walls, and measures windows (I particularly admire the animation of the measuring tape). The effect is surprisingly eerie and menacing, and the scene closes with a “gotcha” moment that’s both thrilling and hilarious.
Gromit returns home to discover that this “paying guest” is planning an audacious heist. The building he was casing is actually a museum where a diamond exhibit is taking place. Using the vacuum-soled boots of the techno-trousers, the penguin sends Wallace marching up the side of the museum, down through a ventilation duct in the roof, and then upside-down along the ceiling to where the diamond lies.
The heist scene, for all its silliness, is nail-biting all the way through. Nick Park, who wrote and directed Trousers, obviously knows suspense. He knows when things should go smoothly, and he knows when things need to go wrong, so when the penguin sweats, you’ll sweat with him. Park earned his Oscar for this scene alone — though there’s one coming up that’s even better, if you can believe it.
The thief manages to get the booty back to home base, where he locks Wallace and the trousers in a wardrobe. Gromit steps in to save the day, but this penguin’s packing heat, so doggy and master are soon reunited.
Gromit manages to short the techno-trousers and make them charge at the penguin, smashing the wardrobe open in the process. In surprise, the penguin leaps to the engine of a passing toy train, a train whose tracks run all over the house. Thus begins the most gripping and memorable sequence of The Wrong Trousers: the train chase.
This chase has the kinetic, slapstick spirit of a Roger Rabbit cartoon, but it’s really a very smart scene in which Gromit and the penguin continually thwart and outwit each other.
And you’d have to be dead inside not to laugh and cheer at some of the things that happen:
Perhaps fittingly, the techno-trousers themselves save the day when they block the penguin’s path and cause everyone to crash in one place. What happens next is so hilariously satisfying that it’s certain to make at least one person in the room stand up and applaud. I know this because that person is usually me.
It should be clear by now that I adore this movie, and that I regard it more highly than most cartoons in the world. Still, I struggle to define exactly what it is that I love about it so much. The Wrong Trousers is a subtle and gentle thing; it’s about as far from “in your face” as possible. It doesn’t have the artistic pizzazz of the other Ultimate Top Cartoons, nor does it have the emotional or narrative complexity.
So what is it?
I think what impresses me most about The Wrong Trousers is that it defies expectation and classification. It pulls some chips away from Safe, Cute, and Charming, puts them down on Menace, Suspense, and Violence, and then goes and shoots seven after seven after seven. I mean, that’s got to be some kind of miracle.
Divine or not, The Wrong Trousers is a joy to watch over and over and over. I think it is the most humble of the Ultimate Top Cartoons, but it is also the only one you can watch with kids around, and the surest to brighten your day and leave you smiling. I recommend you take it with a nice port, and some Rogue River Blue.