Wallace & Gromit
directed by Nick Park
(Aardman Animations,
1989, 1993, 1995)

Laurel & Hardy. Abbott & Costello. Dumb & Dumber. There's just something we love about comic duos. It's true in animation, too: Rocky & Bullwinkle, Heckle & Jeckle, Beavis and Butt-head. And now the piece-de-resistance: Wallace & Gromit.

Where Wallace & Gromit fit in the pantheon of greats is not hard to figure: at the top.

In three outings -- A Grand Day Out (1989), Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995) -- the claymation characters have garnered two Academy Awards. This in an age where hardly anyone bats over .300.

For the uninitiated, Wallace is a Lancashire cheese junkie with an unlimited gift for understatement. He washes windows for a living and in his spare time invents everything from a machine that shoots porridge into his breakfast bowl to a rocket ship capable of interplanetary travel -- and making toast.

Gromit is his dog. As is usually the case, Gromit is the brains of the outfit. It's Gromit who figures out that the penguin they've taken in as a boarder in The Wrong Trousers is really Feathers McGraw, a notorious jewel thief who puts a rubber glove on his head to masquerade as a chicken. And it's Gromit who discovers that the sheep rustler terrorizing the countryside in A Close Shave is really Preston, cyborg canine companion of Wendolene Ramsbottom, yarn shop owner and Wallace's love interest -- until he learns she can't abide cheese.

Gromit washes windows as well.

The inventions of world-class animator Nick Park, Wallace & Gromit work because Park has given them personalities five full fathoms deeper than those of most live-action film figures.

Wallace is the most unlikely of heroes: big-eyed, bulbous nosed, with wing-nut ears and a banana-broad smile, he's perpetually brilliant and dense at the same time. Gromit is his alter ego: A born hero who hides his light under a bushel, and where he's often caught reading something from the classics.

But personality is just the beginning. Park gives his characters the stuff few claymation figures ever get: good dialogue, inventive sight gags, sets capable of producing laughter on their own, camerawork worthy of a film noir thriller and plot scenarios as full of surprises as they are of silliness.

Unlike most animators, who feel the need to keep their characters yakking, Park uses dialogue sparingly. The result is a series of memorable lines that don't just fill up dead air. They punctuate the action with ironic commentary.

That helps Park showcase the sight gags, such as the great toy locomotive chase that finishes off Feathers McGraw. It's a howler that would have done Buster Keaton proud.

To top it off, Park has layered the films with musical scores combining comic originals with hysterical renditions of pop cliches like "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," and shot all three films on sets so finely detailed they make the Baroques look like minimalists. Keep your eye on the wallpaper.

Sadly, after going three for three, Parks has indicated he may be ready to retire Wallace & Gromit. Fortunately, we have them on tape. Even more fortunately, we can rent them. Do.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

Buy Wallace & Gromit from Amazon.com.