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20 Years In The Wrong Trousers

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2013 marks the 20th anniversary of one of the defining British animated films in the history of animation.  Christmas time 1993 reintroduced the telly viewing public to the exploits of the ingenious pooch Gromit and his cloud-headed owner Wallace as they faced the villainous Feathers McGraw in The Wrong Trousers. As it enters its 20th year I decided to take a look at why this is the definitive outing for the tea-slurping duo.

wallaceandgromit

It isn’t going to be an easy task defining this film as the best that the series has to offer as it sits amongst some very strong candidates, each one more successful than the last. Without the success of the second film we find ourselves assessing here, however, none of the subsequent films would have been possible. Wallace and Gromit‘s list of appearances spans films, features and TV with A Close Shave, Cracking Contraptions, Curse of the Were-Rabbit and A Matter of Loaf and Death following on from A Grand Day Out and The Wrong Trousers. Add to that list the spinoff series Shaun the Sheep (soon to star in his own movie) and Timmy Time, a spinoff of a spinoff that still showcases the trademark Aardman spirit without anything feeling watered down. Wallace and Gromit have not only spawned a succession of films and features but the pair have also hosted their own television series World of Invention, featured in games (video and board) theme park rides as well as starring in Musical Marvels, which celebrates the music of the films.

Gromit became the canvas for world renowned artists during the "Gromit Unleashed" fund raiser

Gromit became the canvas for world renowned artists during the “Gromit Unleashed” fund raiser

What is most commendable about the success of Wallace and Gromit is that its popularity has been harnessed to raise money and awareness for Bristol Children’s Hospital with the recent auction of painted “Gromit Unleashed” statues raising millions of pounds for charity.

trouserstitle

So what makes The Wrong Trousers so special then? The film starts off with the now familiar tune as a colliery band pipes up a rendition of Julian Nott’s famous theme setting the Wigan based comedy into motion.  The first thing we see is three spaceships mimicking the flying ducks seen in the living room of Hilda Ogden’s home in Coronation Street – reminding us of both the northern setting for the films and the duo’s previous adventure – before the sinister shadow of the techno trousers and dramatic burst of music begins the film. The titles in the first adventure were relatively simple but from now on they would be used to start the films with the kind of tension and excitement associated with Hollywood thrillers. The previous adventure A Grand Day Out was a fantastic film, but not good enough to launch the still present celebrity of the plasticine pair. However it was not without its own achievements, as a student film started by Nick Park at the NFTS its ambition and storyline took our twosome on perhaps their most farfetched adventure yet. It was completed by Park when he began working at Aardman in 1985, who allowed him time to finish it whilst he worked on music videos, adverts and other work for the studio. A Grand Day Out earned an Oscar nomination for Park who unfortunately lost out. Fortunately though, the person he lost out to was himself with another film Creature Comforts which displayed the ingenuity of the director that would continue in further films. Credit for the new direction of Wallace and Gromit, which began with The Wrong Trousers, belongs to Park as well as Bob Baker. As the co-writer Baker found himself collaborating with Park to shape the myriad of creative ideas and sketchbook gags into a tight, working script. The professional process of working with storyboards enabled the director to hand tasks over to others and sped production up significantly more than A Grand Day Out which took 7 years to complete (1982-1989) as Park worked alone for the majority of the production.

A Grand Day Out

A Grand Day Out

The film starts with a cosy morning scene as Gromit picks up his birthday post and awakens his master using possibly his most famous invention, which drops Wallace into a pair of trousers before adding a top and sleeves; You know, the one we all wished we had when we were kids. It seems obvious to point out the similarities between Wallace’s inventions and the work of cartoonist William Heath Robinson or the other British comics Parks work is influenced by, but what sets their placement in the films apart from homages in other films and TV series which have become prevalent in animation is that they are not wasted. It’s funny to see the contraption in action, but most of the sight gags and gadgets follow the “Chekov’s Gun” principle and become important later in the film such as the model train set that passes items around the house which returns for the thrilling climax. Even the decorations on the wall, such as the pictures of sheep and the prize marrow in a display case, come into play in later films.

gromitsad

Armed with only a pair of plasticine eyebrows the expression on Gromits face tugs at the heartstrings

The “Ex-NASA” trousers gifted to Gromit by Wallace are another timesaving device that ends up getting man and his dog into more trouble than it is worth, in this case exacerbated by the arrival of the mysterious, Gary Larson-inspired penguin lodger who quickly takes over from Gromit as man’s best friend, causing Gromit to leave home in one of the most heart-breaking sequences of animation in any of the films. Once Gromit is out of the way, the lodger’s villainous intentions are revealed the trousers are hijacked (thanks to “Electronics for Dogs” – presumably a penguin edition) and the hapless inventor is taken for a ride throughout town. Gromit’s suspicions cause him to turn sleuth; Following the mysterious lodger as he plots his diamond heist, the detective dog avoids suspicion by hiding inside a “Meatabix” box with a pair of well-placed eyeholes.

meatabix

One of the films many hilarious punchlines

The character of Gromit as we know him today really comes out for the first time in this film and the range of expressions made available by a simple twist of a plasticine eyebrow are masterfully displayed by the Aardman animators. It is easy to label Gromit as the sidekick in these adventures but his unswerving loyalty to Wallace and keen investigative mind place him at the center of most adventures as he tries to right the unintentional wrongs of his absent minded master; he is well and truly the star of the shorts.  His controlling nature over Wallace would resurface in Curse of the Were-Rabbit where it would be central to the plot, as well as in A Matter of Loaf and Death where Wallace’s cloudy head gets him into trouble yet again.

The Wrong Trousers is only around half an hour long but has too many specific details and moments that delight, thrill and entertain to mention them all here. One sequence in particular, which would go on to define the film and set the standard for the rest of their adventures, is the final train sequence. The sequence itself is only a few minutes long but sums up the entire film in one adrenalin-fueled comedy chase filled with gags galore at a madcap pace that would leave Chuck Jones gasping for breath. The sequence itself would become something of an Aardman tradition, reappearing in Chicken Run and The Pirates as well as other Wallace and Gromit shorts. The chase is made all the more thrilling by Feathers McGraw packing a pistol and Gromit having to frantically lay the track as his runaway toy train careers throughout the house eventually catching up to the villainous bird in the thrilling finale.

TRAINCHASE

The film was a huge success that led to the commission of other Wallace and Gromit shorts. In an era where The Snowman was the only UK animation more or less guaranteed to be on UK television over the Christmas period, suddenly animation became a worthwhile investment and The Wrong Trousers ushered in an era of animated Christmas telly that included A Close Shave as well as perhaps the confidence to showcase other work such as Flatworld from Tandem‘s Daniel Greaves, Hamilton’s Mattress by Barry Purves and Robbie the Reindeer directed by Shaun the Sheep and Rex the Runt director Richard “Golly” Starzak. This varied output proved that the studio isn’t just a one man band and is host to a range of successful directors and freelancers and continues to do so to this day.

A Close Shave

A Close Shave

After a trip to Hollywood with Curse of the Were-Rabbit, 14.3 million people watched A Matter of Loaf and Death – beating Doctor Who in the ratings by over two and a half million viewers – when the duo returned to the half-hour format in 2008. Whilst it may not have been the critical hit that its predecessors were, it proved that the charm of Wallace and Gromit could still bag BAFTAs and even an Oscar nomination. When the much-needed animation tax incentives were announced by chancellor George Osborne in 2012 they were done so with the promise to “keep Wallace and Gromit exactly where they are” alluding to the threat of production moving abroad and perhaps a cheeky sound bite aimed at the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband who is often compared to Wallace. As the figureheads of British animation Wallace and Gromit’s charm, popularity and the threat of their departure forced the government to alter policy. Now THAT’S what I call success!

The Sun reflect sarcastically on chancellor George Osbornes 2012 budget announcement

The Sun report on the 2012 budget with the chancellors Wallace and Gromit sound bite taking the front page

But the charm which has sustained the success of Wallace and his faithful pooch Gromit started in The Wrong Trousers, when the ambition of Nick Park finally reached its potential with the help of Aardman Animations. It’s a charm which continues to this day as well as serving as inspiration for the next generation of UK animation talent, who perhaps feel just as inspired by The Wrong Trousers now as they did two decades ago.

Items mentioned in this article:

Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Collection (DVD)

Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Collection (DVD)

£5

Buy Now on Amazon

Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Collection (Blu-ray)

Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Collection (Blu-ray)

£6.75

Buy Now on Amazon

Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit (DVD Special Edition)

Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit (DVD Special Edition)

£4.50

Buy Now on Amazon

Wallace & Gromit's World of Invention

Wallace & Gromit's World of Invention

£2.90

Buy Now on Amazon

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