Unlike some other people on this very website, I am a sceptic when it comes to short films. It’s not that I have anything against it as a form inherently – it’s just that a lot of short films are bad. I would go as far as to say that most short films are bad. There are a lot of bad features, too, but their length requires a level of commitment that does at least a little weeding out. Of all the shorts I’ve seen, most have one idea, or one twist, or one – God forbid – lesson to be learnt. Too many shorts feel like the very first idea someone thought of. Way too many seem like a single idea stretched to breaking, and feel much too long even as that should be definitionally impossible.
These problems are a trend, not a rule, and there are a few categories that bypass these problems entirely, that feel naturally suited to the form. One of them is experimental films – like those of Maya Deren or David Lynch – which aren’t bound by traditional narrative and can pack their short running time with strange, affecting visuals. But the main exception is animated shorts: the short film feels like the platonic ideal for a cartoon. Maybe it’s because the commitment necessitated by a feature’s length is there in a cartoon regardless of its length, just because animation is hard and takes a long time. Maybe it’s that cartoons are the short films I grew up on, like old Looney Tunes shorts repackaged for television, while live action shorts were virtually absent. Maybe it’s just animation’s greater respect for the importance of colours. But my short film scepticism retreats to the background when the short happens to be animated.
Case in point: Wallace and Gromit.
There are few things on this earth quite as delightful as Wallace and Gromit. In their thirty-year history, they’ve been in four short films – each around the half-hour mark – and one feature, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. All of them are outstanding, but the shorts especially so. I can think of no better examples for how a short film can feel as complete as a feature. The best comparison I can make is to a feature film divided in thirds. When I saw The Place Beyond The Pines, even though I was watching it at home on TV and so knew both what time it was and what length the film was, I thought the film was ending a third of the way through when the section about Ryan Gosling’s character ended. It wasn’t because it had dragged, far from it: it was because the story felt satisfyingly complete, covering all the rhythms of a feature-length story in a fraction of the time. And that’s how the Wallace and Gromit shorts make me feel, in a way the best short films do. Like I’ve watched a film that happens to be half an hour long.
Wallace is an inventor, constructing elaborate Rube Goldberg machines to deal with simple tasks like preparing toast or getting dressed. As so much Western animation gets sucked into prizing of photorealism over inventiveness – a trend that has reached its apex in the myth that the 2019 remake of The Lion King is “live action” – rewatching the Wallace and Gromit shorts is a wonderful corrective. Wallace’s inventions are both silly and stunning, and it’s delightful to watch them work. And delightful to watch them inevitably go wrong. There’s not much value in saying some forms of animation are better than others, but there is something special about stop motion, in how it moves and how it feels. Besides inventing, Wallace is also a big fan of cheese (especially Wensleydale) and crackers. 1989’s A Grand Day Out, the first Wallace and Gromit short, combines both: the boys build a rocket to go to the moon and get some cheese.
Saying that Gromit is Wallace’s dog is technically true but feels wrong. Gromit is Wallace’s dog, but he’s also his best friend and his long-term housemate, his perfect double act partner and the undisputed brains of the operation. He reads a lot, both books and newspapers (setting up dozens of great sight gags). I mean, he’s got a double first in engineering for dogs from Dogwarts University, after all. Gromit is one of the best film characters of all time, right up there with Rocky Balboa and Juror #8, and it’s all the more astonishing because he never says a word. Like the great silent comedians, and Buster Keaton in particular, he says it all with his facial expressions. His, unlike Keaton’s, just happen to be moulded from clay. A quirk of his brow, a tiny shake of his head, his ears pricking up or falling flat, and we know exactly what he’s thinking. As Empire put it, “Gromit doesn’t ever say a word, but there has never been a more expressive character (animated or otherwise) to grace our screens.”
The Wallace and Gromit films could happily skate by on their great characters and funny gags, but what makes them truly great is their approach to genre. A Grand Day Out is wonderful, but it’s by far the weakest of the four shorts. Some differences in animation aside, the characters and the gags are there, but the plot has some parts that just never gel, especially once they get to the moon. The subsequent Wallace and Gromit films all take inspiration from a somewhat unlikely source: horror films.
The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and A Matter of Loaf and Death are all horror films, and great ones. That’s not to say they’re not cartoons for children, and certainly not to say that they’re not comedies. But their structures are taken directly from classic horror plots, repurposing them for laughs or playing them straight. Both work: the straight horror in Wallace and Gromit is incredibly effective, and the comical subversions are so obviously brilliant that it feels silly to have to say it.
The Wrong Trousers, the 1993 follow-up to A Grand Day Out, establishes the basic formula. For Gromit’s birthday, Wallace builds him self-walking “techno trousers”. Short on cash, he also takes in a penguin as a lodger. The penguin is one of the great cinematic villains: like Gromit, he doesn’t say anything, but even early in the short, when his villainy is basically being a shit housemate (he takes over Gromit’s room and redecorates, and he blares loud music late into the night), he projects such a sinister energy. Gromit’s silence never feels like silence because his face is so expressive, but the penguin’s silence is eerie and ominous.
The penguin is, at it turns out, Feathers McGraw, an infamous jewel thief. He wears a rubber glove on his head to do his crimes, hilariously rendering him unrecognisable to all the other characters because they think he’s a chicken. He secretly rewires the techno trousers for radio control, and forces Wallace into them in order to steal a diamond from the city museum. The horror influence is evident from the title card, which uses the Universal monster movie font or something close to it. But the real horror is in Feathers controlling those trousers, in the complete theft of autonomy that they embody. It’s in Wallace crying out that they’re the wrong trousers. The real horror is in the absolute menace that Feathers radiates on-screen.
The unease is exacerbated all the more by the wedge Feathers drives between Wallace and Gromit, culminating in Gromit running away from home. Even two short films in, their friendship seems like one of those unshakeable bonds where the whole world would stop making sense if it broke. After stealing the diamond, Feathers locks Wallace and Gromit in a wardrobe – Wallace, thanks to the turbo trousers, and Gromit, at gunpoint, in a moment that still shocks a bit. Gromit rewires the trousers to kick through the wardrobe door, and then we get the best scene in the thing, one of the best scenes ever.
Wallace and Gromit – mainly Gromit – chase Feathers through the house, and it is one of the most singularly entertaining chase sequences in film history. Gromit and Feathers are each on a carriage on Wallace and Gromit’s model train set, while Wallace follows in his turbo trousers or a cart. Feathers fires his gun at Gromit as he tries to make his getaway. It’s Buster Keaton’s The General with a penguin and a dog, and it rules. It’s funny and clever and just extremely exciting. It’s like a big action set piece in a Steven Spielberg movie, somehow managing to fit all of that into its much smaller scale. And have lots of jokes. It runs for about two minutes, yet there are a dozen moments I could point to in the chase alone. But the absolute best is before reaching a dead end on the train set, Gromit starts putting down spare track.
The horror influence only becomes more overt in Wallace and Gromit’s subsequent adventures. A Close Shave is one part of those uncovering-the-sinister-plot movies, like The Stepford Wives or Coma, one part evil robot movie. A Matter of Loaf and Death is a serial killer story. It’s the key ingredient to the shorts having such rich, complex plots. And The Curse of the Were-Rabbit goes without saying. The Wallace and Gromit films’ greatest strengths are their vividly realised characters, their eccentric humour, and their beautiful and inventive animation. Horror turns out to be the perfect vehicle for all of these things.