Director: Nick Park
Cast: Peter Sallis
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“It’s the wrong trousers, Gromit!” cries Wallace (Peter Sallis) in Wallace and Gromit’s masterful animated short, The Wrong Trousers. “They’ve gone wrong!” he adds, just in case we hadn’t figured that bit out yet. It’s hard to imagine a bigger jump from their first film, A Grand Day Out, which saw them fly to the moon in a homemade rocket to replenish their dwindling stock of cheese – from the Earth to the moon and back… to a pair of malfunctioning pants.
Four years after Nick Park’s directorial debut, a quaintly British gem bursting with heart and imagination, The Wrong Trousers marks a notable step up for Aardman Animations. That’s clear from the moment the 30-minute caper begins, as they introduce what was missing from A Grand Day Out: a plot. Not just a situation, but a full-on rollercoaster ride of a narrative. If A Grand Day Out grounded the impossible in the mundanely real, The Wrong Trousers roots the magic of the movies in the doldrums of day-to-day life; the story belts along with the thrills of a blockbuster, while unfolding on a delightfully domestic scale.
The man and his best friend remain as recognisable as ever, and recognisably still friends. Wallace’s contraptions have reached Rube Goldberg heights, as he crafts a ridiculously convoluted machine just to get him out of bed and make breakfast in the morning, but it’s telling that the intricate gizmo is at its funniest when Wallace and Gromit have fallen out, and the resulting imbalance sends the whole machine off-kilter, leaving Gromit on his own in the dining room with a face covered in jam – an inspired sequence that flawlessly balances hilarious slapstick with heartbreaking pathos.
They’re split up by the devious scheming of a new face: a penguin, who rents out a room in Wallace’s house, only to usurp his canine companion and ultimately push him out into the rain-strewn streets. That cunning infiltration turns out to be more than emotional manipulation: the penguin, we discover, is actually a criminal mastermind, and is planning to use Wallace’s automated outfit to carry out a daring museum heist – The Wrong Trousers made right for all the wrong reasons.
Gromit, of course, isn’t fooled by this penguin, and he follows him in the hope of exposing the fraud for what he is. The result is an age-old tale brought freshly to life through lumps of endearingly animated clay, and Park’s ability to tap into genre excitement through the lens of friendship is wonderfully specific and enchantingly universal. As he scales up his ambition, his attention to detail remains breathtaking, turning familiar household objects into something surprising and new: a rickety tape measure becomes a handy way to climb up several storeys of a building; a milk bottle becomes a useful tool to capture and imprison a villain; and a red rubber globe, in one of the film’s most hysterical visual jokes, becomes an effective form of disguise, as the penguin puts it on his hand to pretend to be a chicken. (His burglar alter-ego? Feathers McGraw.)
From the moment he arrives on Wallace’s doorstep, like The Lodger in Hitchcock’s classic silent, there’s something beautiful about how menacing he can be without saying a word – the ideal foil for Gromit, a silent sidekick who conveys angst, fear, anger and shock all through the slightest movements of his hand-modelled eyebrow. One moment sees Gromit hide inside a box for dog food to avoid being detected by the penguin, and just the sight of his eyes looking through two cardboard holes communicates a wealth of thoughts and feelings. Even the way he pays for his coffee while on shadowing duty tells us so much about his honest, moral character.
Park, throughout, stuffs the frame with knowing jokes and self-aware gags that remind us what we’re watching is a sculpted piece of artifice; a farce that’s assembled in painstaking slow-motion by hands unseen. And yet he races towards a climax that’s as gripping as any Hollywood heist flick: a scene that, astonishingly, is based entirely around the laying out of a toy train set in real-time. It’s not until the dizzying feat of ingenuity is over that you realise your jaw has been hanging open – one of the best chase scenes in cinema history, it’s a stunning bit of filmmaking that builds impeccably upon the promise made by A Grand Day Out four years prior. Where that lost the Oscar for Best Animated Short (to Creature Comforts, another Aardman/Park joint), The Wrong Trousers won the Academy Award. It paved the way for Aardman’s first feature-length project, Chicken Run, and announced the one-man-and-his-dog duo as an iconic double-act that were here to stay.
The Wrong Trousers is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.
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