Feat of Clay

Wallace and Gromit filmmakers tackle Gumby Noir

You ordinarily wouldn't consider a cheese-loving Yorkshire inventor named Wallace and his mute dog, Gromit, the stuff of cinematic stardom. But in Toonland, where cults and corporations rise from the zany fiction of talking crickets, mice, ducks, moose, flying squirrels, the Simpsons and their heavy-metal cousins Beavis and Butt-head, just about anything convincing goes. Wallace and Gromit--now the focus of an exhibition at the Arizona Museum for Youth--have star quality.

Directed by the brilliant young English animator Nick Park at Aardman Animations, W&G's comedic run-ins with bad dogs, nefarious penguins and Wallace's weird household inventions have been credited with helping to spark the recent explosion of interest in animated movies. Long before the ballyhooed arrival of Anastasia, Toy Story, Aladdin, The Lion King or The Nightmare Before Christmas, spud-nosed, flap-eared Wallace and pooch could be seen hard at work in their cluttered basement on Wallaby Street (A Grand Day Out) building the rocket to take them on the ultimate cheese lover's holiday to the moon.

Since debuting in 1989, the duo has known nothing but success. Grand Day and two subsequent efforts have come out on video and have sold about two million copies. The Queen is reportedly a fan (but, then, that's her job). So is Britain-born NASA astronaut Michael Foale, who recently returned from a Wallace-and-Gromitlike stint on Mir. In fact, a story circulating in England is that Foale brought the W&G tapes along on the mission, and that they were lost in a now sealed-off module of the space station after it was damaged in last June's collision with a cargo ship.

Foale told New Times, "I'm enormously fond of them," but he declined to comment further. A spokeswoman for NASA--remember Tang?--says, "They [W&G] didn't fly with Mike."

All three W&G video episodes were nominated for Academy Awards, with the two latest, A Close Shave and The Wrong Trousers, walking away with Oscars. (A Grand Day Out lost out in 1990 only because another of Park's inspired films, Creature Comforts, took that year's award for best animated film.)

Like all true animated heroes, W&G are becoming a merchandising bonanza. They staff a line of products--for kitchen, bedroom and bath--that extends from stuffed animals, knapsacks, alarm clocks, watches and radios to clothing, books, stationery, magnets and their own brand of Wensleydale cheese.

Organized by the Mesa museum and Aardman as part of the UK/AZ festival, "An Adventure With Wallace and Gromit" is the first American museum exhibition devoted to the pair. Next the show will travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it will open in a slightly modified form next spring.

In addition to screening the films, the Mesa exhibition offers a peek behind the scenes at the process, story boards, sets, figurines and other props employed to make the movies. It also boasts plenty of hands-on activities. Children can make their own story boards and flip books, for example. Or design their own Wallace and Gromit sets and moon rockets, and serve tea in a life-size replica of the English odd couple's living room. And there are several phenakistoscopes (feen-a-kis-toe-scopes), the grandmother of all modern movie projectors, which produce a moving picture with a spinning carousel of still images.

Barbara Meyerson, who heads the youth museum, says W&G have made it a magnet for animation fans. Attendance is way up, along with the average age of visitors. "We're seeing lots of junior high, high school and college students," says Meyerson. "And plenty of adults are coming through the doors without children, which is something we almost never see."

W&G are also luring diehards from outside the area. One out-of-state family apparently turned around at the Grand Canyon and beelined to Mesa when it heard that W&G were there. A woman called from Santa Cruz, California, to ask, "Is it true, are they really here?" And yes, says Meyerson, the word is out on the Internet. "People are talking about it in chat rooms."

The hubbub is understandable. As with all good animation, one of the chief attractions of Wallace and Gromit is their direct link to the artist's hand. Beyond such obvious things as lighting, movement of the figures and camera work, you can see Park and company's meticulous touch in all of the films' beautifully crafted figurines, backdrops and props. Every one of them--34 different sets in the case of the The Wrong Trousers--had to be fabricated. Just a handful of actual sets and artifacts is in this show, but each part is magically real.

The rivets on the rocket ship (A Grand Day Out) give you the sense that they're the reason this comfy space-home away from home reached the moon and returned. And all of the gears, bolts and mechanical minutiae on Preston the cyber dog (A Close Shave) convince you that he's the truly "Bad Dog" you get warned about on backyard fences.

Bo Smith, head of the film department at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, says the distinction of W&G is that Park and his collaborators "put as much effort into creating compelling stories and characters as they put into developing the sets and props."

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