The modern blueprint for action scenes is mostly “bigger equals better.” Over 20 years, the Fast and Furious franchise went from crew members stealing electronics to Dwayne Johnson diverting a torpedo with his bare hands. The Marvel Cinematic Universe evolved from a few people saving Earth to a full squadron of them saving the entire universe.
But no matter how many superhuman feats and characters modern franchises add, no action will ever hold a candle to the toy-train chase scene in Wallace and Gromit in The Wrong Trousers. The reasons for that illustrate why the Wallace and Gromit shorts hold up so well, 30 years after they first launched.
The first Wallace and Gromit film, 1989’s A Grand Day Out, introduced the world to Wallace, a middle-aged man with a fondness for cheese, and Gromit, his loyal, smart, long-suffering dog. Two more installments followed: The Wrong Trousers in 1993, and A Close Shave in 1995. Wallace and Gromit went on to other adventures — the full-length feature The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005, a fourth short called A Matter of Loaf and Death in 2008, and two TV miniseries in 2002 and 2010 — but they’re best remembered for the original trio of shorts, and for good reason. They’re faultless. (They’re also accessible for new audiences, as they’re streaming on Amazon Prime.)
The stop-motion claymation comedies, created by Nick Park, used one of entertainment’s most labor-intensive mediums to tell compact stories, focusing on quality over quantity. Every film to come out of the studio, from Chicken Run to A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, is exquisite for exactly that reason, but the shorts best capture the detailed craft. A Grand Day Out features Wallace and Gromit building a spaceship so Wallace can sample the cheese the Moon is supposedly made of. Once on the Moon, they encounter a coin-operated robot whose purpose is to keep the Moon pristine. Its pursuit of the two lunar visitors becomes more furious when it learns about skiing from a magazine they leave behind, and it becomes obsessed with going to Earth to experience skiing for itself.
The robot is terrifying, not because it’s particularly large or menacing, but because it’s so earnest and driven, and because the short treats with compassion. It’s easy to imagine why the idea of snow-covered mountains and the thrill of skiing would be so appealing to a robot who seems to have spent its entire life confined to the Moon, alone and unable to move without anyone to feed it coins. That empathy is the reason why the robot is so easily transformed back into a harmless figure at the end of the film. Any other film could have had the heroes destroy or escape the robot without a look back. Instead, Park has it accidentally forming makeshift skis, then waving goodbye to the heroes as they leave the Moon.
Wallace and Gromit’s emotions throughout this story, and the robot’s, too, are all conveyed by motion and music. The robot is a boxy, faceless thing without clear expressions, and Wallace is the only speaking character in both A Grand Day Out and The Wrong Trousers. The introduction of another human character in A Close Shave — shopkeeper Wendolene —helps provide more details for the most complex storyline in these shorts, but what stands out in Park’s work is still the exquisite animation and vivid character designs.
Though A Close Shave the most dialogue-heavy of the three shorts, it begins without a word. Everything that needs to be known about a truck carrying sheep and the mysterious figures driving it is conveyed through the eerie red light shining on the street, and the way the driver’s and passenger’s faces are all but obscured by shadows. We don’t need to be told that something is amiss, and the single exchange in the scene — a woman driving a car grabs her dog’s arm to tell him not to bother chasing a stray sheep — is totally silent. Attention to detail is everything.
The Wrong Trousers’ train-chase climax epitomizes that principle. A criminal penguin moves in as Wallace’s lodger, and drives Gromit out of the house. He plans to use Wallace as his unwitting accomplice and scapegoat, putting him in a pair of mechanical trousers that force Wallace to do his bidding. Gromit figures out the scheme, and returns to the house to take the penguin on. The confrontation culminates in a chase involving a toy train set that handily beats out any other chase scene ever put to film. Julian Nott’s peppy score increases the sense of urgency by passing around which instruments play the main melody, and the visuals, which employ whip-pans, POV shots, and lighting tricks to emphasize position and motion, make what sounds like a joke — “a dog and his master chase a penguin riding a toy train” — into a stunning setpiece.
“Big,” here, serves the story, rather than the other way around. And the things that stand out about the sequence are endless: the dings the penguin’s bullets leave on Gromit’s lampshade helmet; the way the penguin’s wing curls in a fussy gesture when he realizes he’s been left with a single train car; the change in lighting to frame Gromit from underneath when he hangs from a great height.
They’re simple things, but precise. Even the score isn’t that complicated, mostly relying on one theme, but the orchestration and transitions reflect what’s happening on screen in the manner of an old Tom and Jerry cartoon or silent film. It all adds up to something impeccable, and something that, unlike special effects or computer animation, will never age.