Wallace & Gromit: The Early Years

Like many fans of Ardman Animation, director Nick Park, and the characters of Wallace and Gromit, I am eagerly looking forward to the release next month of WALLACE & GROMIT: CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT. Timed with the release of the feature film, Wallace and Gromit's three Oscar-nominated short subjects are coming out on DVD today, plus some even shorter vignettes (a series called "Cracking Contraptions") that was made for the Internet.

The release of this older material brought home to me just how long it has taken for Wallace and Gromit to make their first feature-length film. The stop-motion stars made their debut in A GRAND DAY OUT back in 1990. After winning their first Oscar for THE WRONG TROUSERS in 1994, there was talk of doing a longer project, but Nick Park was concerned about maintaining the integrity of the characters while simultaneously capitalizing on their popularity. At the time, he told me:

“We are talking about some of the ways it might go. We have a lot of interest in doing more films; I feel the iron’s hot and ready to strike. We’re talking about a longer film at the moment, though what the actual length would be we don’t quite know. It could be 50 minutes long; it could be a TV movie or even something longer. We’re working on a script with Bob Baker [who co-wroter WRONG TROUSERS] again, a 75-minute story that we may very well condense down. We thing we probably could get the feature film money for it, but it’s a matter of: the more money there is, the more commercial pressure there is, and with these two characters I think they’ve got to be handled sensitively, not driven by people in suits saying what they should be doing and what kind of market they’ve got to appeal to, because I think it would destroy them.”

In the end, Park and Ardman Animations opted to do another half-hour short subject, A CLOSE SHAVE, because the BBC was ready to step up to the plate and finance the project, which it could use as a holiday TV special. In 1996, that film won a second Oscar for the plasticine pals (as Park calls them, after the Play-Dough-like subtance of which they are made), which ignited further interest in a feature film for them, but again Ardman chose a different path.

"We're planning a feature now, but it's not Wallace and Gromit," Park explained to me. "Since I started A GRAND DAY OUT in college, I've actually been doing Wallace and Gromit, on and off, for thirteen years. I really feel very strongly for them: they're my babies, and I still think of ideas for them; I would like them to have more of a life, and I'd like to come back to them and do more short films or a feature. I think there would be no problem getting financing for a feature film. But I think for now I just want to get on with some new ideas, new characters."

At the time, the company was eager to get into the feature-film business, after years of making commercials and short subjects. "It's been our dream to make a feature, but we've waited a long time until conditions were right," said Ardman producer Mike Rose. "We've been talking to a lot of studios in Hollywood, but we wanted to make sure that we could make the film independently and retain creativity. We've found the right circumstances to do that now, so we're developing our first project. We want the film to be a big theatrical picture, so we will want a deal with one of the studios down the line. We'd love to be in the cinemas across America." Tim Burton's THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS had recently proved that a stop-motion feature film could be a success at the box office, and TOY STORY had shown that an animated film did not require traditional hand-drawn techniques to become a blockbuster.

"NIGHTMARE was darker and had a narrower audience base, whereas TOY STORY showed that 3‑dimensional animation, in place of traditional animation, could capture the entire POCAHONTAS and LION KING market. I think the danger is that everyone's jumping into the act after the success of the Disney films. You've got six studios here churning out animated feature films, and you wonder just how many the box office will stand. I think the good ones will do well, and the bad ones will go off to video. So the pressure is on to make a really good one. TOY STORY has raised the stakes, obviously, because it's fantastic. That's quite a challenge to us, to top TOY STORY. Not that we're out to do that. I'm sure it would be a disaster if we set out to do a blockbuster; it never works. You aim to make the best film possible and hope that people like it. But, whereas before the studio attitude was the 3‑D animation could not be as successful as 2‑D, TOY STORY has shown that, if you've got a great script, great characterization, and great direction, it can."

The result was CHICKEN RUN. Although it did not top TOY STORY, it was the first stop-motion film to earn over $100-million at the box office, making it a certified blockbuster. (NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, by contrast, was a sleeper hit, with tickets sales of just over $50-million.) That success paved the way for Park to finally make his Wallace and Gromit feature -- fifteen years after they made their debut in A GRAND DAY OUT.

It's been a long time. Hopefully, it will be worth the wait.