Wallace & Gromit's Cracking Contraptions Review
In much the same way as the Oscar winning Creature Comforts short is being spun off into a television series this November, last winter saw the arrival of a number of Wallace and Gromit webshorts. Initially only available from the official Aardman website, the shorts have since been collected on DVD by Momentum Pictures, though once again there is only a limited outlet as the disc can only be purchased from said website or CD-Wow. To an extent this is understandable; each of the ten shorts lasts barely five minutes including trailers and they manage to make the previous Wallace and Gromit instalments look positively grandiose, despite the fact that none of these surpassed the thirty minute mark.
This last aspect is interesting when you consider that each of the previous shorts displayed a certain progression, both in terms of animation style and narrative. (Indeed, the film first, A Grand Day Out, seems remarkably quaint compared to the Hitchcock inflections present in The Wrong Trousers.) Yet with these offerings there appears to be a regression; rather than extending the template one step further, each of the shorts presents a simple gag based around one of Wallace’s inventions (hence the Cracking Contraptions title).
Whilst we’re not getting a Wallace and Gromit feature film (which I would have much preferred to Chicken Run despite that film’s many good points), the pair do work remarkably well in diminished form. Owing to the limited release, anyone that is going to purchase this disc will be fully aware of the two leads, meaning little exposition is needed. Indeed, their characters were so well drawn in their previous outings that they now occupy the same spot as Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Laurel and Hardy, who similarly never wasted time explaining who their character’s were, they rightly presumed the audience would already know.
Of course, these comedians also worked in the short film format, often making films revolving around one gag. Both Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races in Venice and Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box take a simple idea (the tramp annoys camera men by getting in shot; a piano delivery doesn’t go according to plan) and offer a number of variations, relying primarily on the skills of the performers’ for laughs. The Cracking Contraptions take this concept and offer a slight spin. Rather than offer the variations within one short, each short is itself a variation. The first piece, The Soccamatic, for example, presents its eponymous device, offers a few small gags and then finishes with the main punchline. Each of the other shorts then uses exactly the same set up, but plays around with the dynamic between the two characters in order to prevent the idea from going stale.
That said, it is detrimental to the films to watch them one after the other. There is no narrative connection between each short, rather each is its own individual offering. Moreover, owing to their webshort origins these pieces were never intended to be shown as a whole, more as an occasional fancy. (This idea was mirrored when the BBC screened them over the Christmas period, seemingly at random and often not advertised.) Seen in this respect, the prospect of comparisons is avoided (of course, certain shorts are better than others) and each can offer its own minor pleasures.
Picture and Sound
Whilst the stereo sound offers no problems and is clear throughout, the image is often soft and lacks clarity. The blacks often appear just a little too black, allowing for little definition in the shadows. Likewise, any bright colours seem too bright.
Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park is the main interviewee for both of the featurettes. The first, a seven minute piece entitled 'Behind the Scenes' focuses on the collaborative effort that went into the shorts as opposed to Park's almost single-handed creation of his previous films.
The second featurette is the more satisfactory of the two. Lasting fifteen minutes 'The Amazing World of Wallace and Gromit' traces both the history of the two characters and the career of Nick Park. Narrated by Andrew Sachs, this piece nicely emulates the charming tone of the shorts.
Also present are Park's Oscar-winning short Creature Comforts and two advertisments from Aardman's Heat Electric campaign. Each of these are excellent, though owners of Momentum's Aardman Classics compilation will own these already.
These main extras are backed-up by a brief (one still per short) gallery and a demo for the Wallace and Gromit computer game.
As with the shorts, no subtitles are offered for the special features.
Aimed squarely at the fans, both the shorts and extras are likely to appeal this contingent. Newcomers, however, may wish to begin with the earlier Wallace and Gromit films.