It is hard not to approach Wallace and Gromit and call them British institutes. Certainly my childhood was shaped by my grandparents owning the VHS's of the three short films, and if I were to introduce someone to the positivity associated with us, then this is what I would show them (along with Paddington). Returning to them in an outdoor screening for Oxford Festival of the Arts elicits both an emotive response of nostalgia and eagerness at taking my young daughter to see them for the first time.
For the uninitiated, Wallace is a cheese-loving inventor and Gromit is his silent, loyal dog. Over the course of these three shorts, each no longer then 30 minutes, they travel to the moon in search of cheese (A Grand Day Out), become embroiled in a diamond heist (The Wrong Trousers) and are framed for sheep rustling (A Close Shave). For the most part the singular voice actor here is the late, great Peter Sallis (there are few actors' tones as definitive as Sallis' Wallace), with only A Close Shave adding the voice of his love interest (Anne Reid). Oh and everything is made out of plasticine, moulded and shaped by hand, each second of film requiring 24 separate frames. They really are an incredible achievement.
The shorts run at a terrific pace, with more plot than most feature length films can achieve. They are infused with a wealth of cinematic and literary influences, from contraptions out of Jules Verne through to moments referencing the likes of The Terminator and Citizen Kane. There is so much to digest in each short and so little time with them that they require repeat viewing. And as fascinating as all the little nuggets are for adults, these are aimed at children, and it was grand to see so many young families watching them. There are jokes throughout for a younger audience - a faulty porridge gun elicits an early laugh from the audience, and laughter continues throughout.
The only criticism I have is that the ordering for the event felt odd, with the shorts shown chronologically backwards. As great as A Grand Day Out is, it feels strange to end on the simplest, and least technically advanced of the trio (this was, after all, Nick Park's graduation project). But then my favourite has always been The Wrong Trousers, with the short finding the perfect mix of Victorian sci-fi invention and Hitchcockian thriller, with arguable one of the greatest train sequences in cinematic history (certainly the best indoor train sequence). But each is packed full of wonderful moments. A Close Shave introduces the world to Shaun the Sheep, a character who has expanded far beyond his early roots, and has a really quite thrilling finale; while A Grand Day Out has an epic scope and a heartbreaking character arc for the robot the duo meet on the moon.
I could write a book on the greatness of Wallace and Gromit. I haven't even begun to touch on the craft that has gone into each frame (such is the arduous nature of stop-motion), nor the humour that runs through each short, and have ignored how Gromit is a hero for our time, his expression telling more then great swathes of verbose characters have done in other works. It was a treat to introduce my young daughter to them, and a credit to the Oxford Festival of Arts that so many families came and shared the wonderful world of Wallace and Gromit.