Wallace & Gromit's Excellent Inventor

Multiple Oscar-winner Nick Park's name is well-known in his native England but remains relatively unfamiliar here in the U.S. More Americans have probably witnessed Park's Plasticine magic in the video for the Peter Gabriel song "Sledgehammer" than in any of his other projects, despite the fact that he has walked off with three of the golden statuettes for Best Animated Short (including this year's for Park's latest madcap Wallace & Gromit adventure, A Close Shave).

Park's handiwork highlights Wallace & Gromit:The Best of Aardman Animation, an anthology unspooling at Miami Beach's Alliance Cinema through this weekend. Although the collection of shorts bears the title of Park's beloved (across the pond, at least) creations -- the mild-mannered, harebrained inventor Wallace and his clever, crime-solving dog Gromit -- it also includes several short works by Park's stablemates at Britain's prolific and world-renowned Aardman Animation studio. Park's efforts compose slightly less than half the collection's 75 minutes, but one could safely say they dominate the show.

And deservedly so. Not merely a tremendous animator, Park proves himself a stunningly talented and original filmmaker as well. He utilizes sophisticated camera angles and lighting techniques to generate mood and make his subtly expressive molded plastic characters look as real and act as plausibly as any human actors in live-action films. The 30-minute comedy-thriller A Close Shave demonstrates Park's filmmaking savvy as its tale of sheep rustling during a wool shortage echoes Spielberg's Indiana Jones adventures as well as Carol Reed's atmospheric classic The Third Man, not to mention Disney's 101 Dalmations. The scale of Park's invention is nothing short of amazing; as Tim Burton did with The Nightmare Before Christmas, Park constructs an entire animated world through which his characters move.

Park also vents his vivid imagination and beguiling sense of humor in the 1989 short Creature Comforts, a series of interviews with talking animals at a British zoo. The droll five-minute short (which, like A Close Shave, garnered an Oscar) tweaks British reserve as Park's caged critters politely share their views on the pluses and minuses of their cramped but well-appointed accommodations, the absence of really fresh red meat from their diet, and the chilly English weather. The nuances in the animals' facial expressions and the closeness with which their movements resemble those of humans are mesmerizing. It's easy to see why the British utility company Heat Electric commissioned Park and his crew to create an advertising campaign based on Creature Comforts; the vignettes of wild animals in domestic settings talking from the comfort of their own homes about the wonders of electric appliances prove irresistible. Small wonder the Heat Electric spots remain one of the most acclaimed ad campaigns in Brit TV history.

The concept of ascribing human characteristics to animated animals is nothing new; Disney founded a billion-dollar international empire on the popularity of one little cartoon mouse. Neither Wallace and Gromit nor Nick Park's talking zoo dwellers have, as yet, yielded amusement parks, motion picture studios, and massive land deals in Central Florida. But Park's endearing creations have the potential for universal appeal to audiences of all ages. Wallace and Gromit may yet be mentioned in the same breath with the great motion picture comedy duos of all time, from Abbott and Costello to the Roadrunner and Coyote. Don't bet against them.

-- Todd Anthony

Wallace & Gromit: The Best of Aardman Animation, featuring the work of Nick Park.

 
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