The latest instalment of Wallace and Gromit, A Matter of Loaf and Death, had more viewers this Christmas than the Queenâ€™s Speech (then again, who cares what that outdated old windbag has to say?). But still, it saddens me that the Doctor Who special ranks lower than what has become the biggest symbol of the commercialisation of the holiday.
Wallace and Gromit, for those who donâ€™t know, are the principle characters in a series of animated shorts and one movie. Wallace is a cheese-loving Yorkshireman, and Gromit is his dog, a Labrador. I have been with them since I was a kid, thirteen years old and staying up to watch as much of the animation season on late-night TV as I could manage. It was 1989, and one of the shorts shown was A Grand Day Out, the first outing of Wallace and Gromit and one of the greatest animations ever made.
A Grand Day out is the story of an old man, for whom no back story is provided, and his dog, who build a rocket in their basement in order to travel to the moon. Why? Because they love cheese, and everyone knows the moon is made of cheese. When they get there, they encounter a sort of park-keeper robot which wants to learn to ski. Yes, itâ€™s pure nonsense. You cannot predict where the plot will go or what the characters will do, and thatâ€™s entirely the point. It skids from normal to weird to dark to wonderful without taking a breath, and the audience accepts it because itâ€™s orchestrated with such charm and style that in this universe, anything can happen and we donâ€™t mind what it is.
Why then, did Nick Park feel the need to depart entirely from that universe and shove his characters into a saccharin world of light and faux suspense? The Wrong Trousers followed in 1993, and expands on the idea of Wallace as madcap inventor, with his entire domestic life handled by â€˜wackyâ€™ inventions which go wrong (leading to the worst-written line of dialogue in history â€œtheyâ€™re the wrong trousers, Gromit, and theyâ€™ve gone wrong!â€). The general public seemed to accept this turn of events. I did not. In A Grand Day Out, Wallace and Gromit build a fully-functioning rocket ship, which is precisely what youâ€™d build if you want to visit the Moon. They build it despite being set up as a normal old man and his dog, they build it against expectations. Thatâ€™s whatâ€™s clever about it. The Wrong Trousers is closer in tone to Pee Wee than its own origin, with stupid â€˜labour-savingâ€™ devices playing a central part. This is kiddy stuff.
At this point the merchandising (also known as â€˜the sweetest cherryâ€™) madness begins. Wallaceâ€™s gurning face appears on everything from pajamas to breakfast cereal. I donâ€™t mind that, to be honest, itâ€™s no less than Iâ€™d do if I invented a franchiseable-character, and if the fanbase is big enough you might as well exploitâ€¦sorry, cater to it because otherwise the counterfeiters will. Plus, who is going to turn down millions in revenue? And as The Simpsons showed, you can merchandise the hell out of something right from the start and not compromise the actual art.
Unfortunately, one novelty umbrella too many seems to have taken its toll on Wallace and Gromit because what attempt at clever writing and novel storyline existed in the first instalment and just about in the second was completely missing by A Close Shave (featuring the hilariously-named Shaun the Sheep). This marked the beginning of the â€˜pun titleâ€™ phase of W&G, for reasons still unfathomable to me. The titles are not consistent in this regard, with Cracking Contraptions and the movie Curse of the Were-Rabbit following. As W&Gâ€™s following grew, so did the need to cater for an increasingly diverse audience. The bigger the fanbase, the broader the appeal needs to be. The broader the appeal needs to be, the more dumbing down there is. Which brings us to A Matter of Loaf and Death. Watched by millions, it opens with the murder of a baker, then cuts to our â€˜heroesâ€™ running a bakery, for no reason that I care about. A Grand Day Out always gave me the impression that Wallace was retired, spending his last days happily eating cheese and building rockets. Not so. Heâ€™s as sprightly as a teenager and immersed in a small enterprise, the world of bread. Thrilling. Enter the female lead, a chubby ex-model who appears to arouse Wallace to the point of crashing his bread van. I donâ€™t want to see Wallace in a state of erect excitement, thanks. Equally, I donâ€™t want to see Gromit falling in â€˜puppy loveâ€™ with a freaking poodle with eye makeup. You remember Scrappy Doo? Thereâ€™s a reason why he was Scoobyâ€™s nephew and not his son, and that reason is DOG SEX and kiddy viewers donâ€™t mix.
I canâ€™t say much more about A Matter of Lots of Wealth without spoilers, although suffice to say the plot is so freaking obvious and identical to the last three or four outings that it wouldnâ€™t matter anyway. It seems obvious to me that Wallace and Gromit are money-making machines, formulaic crowd-pleasing ratings-grabbers which take precedent over art or originality. For those of you thinking of watching Loaf and Death, consider A Grand Day Out instead. I promise youâ€™ll be richer for it.