When we are very, very small, we encounter certain places and things that, along with the people linked to them, serve a formative role within our development as human beings. I hope to no one’s great surprise, some movies did this for me, and over the years writing for this blog I have made an attempt to sing their praises: The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the Universal Studios Monsters; these are only a few out of an expansive catalogue of films and TV shows. I’d like to take today, Valentine’s Day, not to make romantic recommendations or count down the best on-screen couples, but instead to declare my undying love for one of those highly influential pieces of film, the one more than others that I fear I tend to leave out, that I forget to mention when listing my favorite movies. It’s not a feature film, which is why I think it slips so often into obscurity, but make no mistake: this is an unparalleled piece of filmmaking.
The Wrong Trousers (1993)
The Plot: A sinister penguin infiltrates the lives of a brilliant but buffoonish inventor, Wallace, and his equally brilliant mute dog Gromit, in order to exploit their newly-minted techno-trousers to pull off the diabolical heist of the century.
Following their debut in A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers marks the second adventure of Wallace and Gromit, their first Oscar (of three), and one of the most genuine contributions to the cinematic medium in its 120+ year history. As I hope I’ve established, I write this from a standpoint of deep nostalgia, but that doesn’t mean what I say is in anyway inaccurate or untrue. I re-watched The Wrong Trousers just a few days ago both to refresh my memory for this article and because it had been years since I last saw it, and that’s simply unacceptable. What struck me now as an adult viewer was the sheer amount of work that went into creating this half-hour children’s short. As a kid, all you’re watching for is the humor, the shenanigans, that bit where Gromit gets shot in the face with the strawberry jam catapult, and, of course, the chase scene at the end, but more on that later. You can’t fully appreciate the painstaking precision of every one of these stop-motion actions, you don’t get all the gags, and you certainly don’t notice the magnificent world created in the backgrounds of every frame.
Stop-motion takes an absurd amount of time. I’ve tried it before, and it really sucks unless you know what you’re doing. Well, obviously creator Nick Park knows what he’s up to… those four Academy Awards and six BAFTAs do, in the case, speak for themselves. Given the staggering amount of time and effort that goes into animating these little clay characters, you might expect most filmmakers to focus all their energy on that, and care a little less about things like sets and camera angles and—dare I say it?—mise-en-scène. That, dear reader, is what separates the amateurs from the artists. Park is among the most decorated and lauded animators in history, and deserves every ounce of praise. Wallace and Gromit populate a fully-realized world: their house has character-specific clutter; their wall art provides backstory about their relationship; the newspapers they read tell whole stories in their jokey headlines. I can’t think of the last movie I saw that dedicated so much attention to detail.
But enough about that. Amid its world-building, its indelible sense of humor, and surprising character development (despite only one vocal character), The Wrong Trousers remains famous, popular, and otherwise memorable for one sequence in particular. Since I reviewed The Wrong Trousers, I have watched and re-watched its climax over and over again. I considered writing an entire article just on this chase scene, because it is a perfect piece of storytelling. If I needed to teach a seminar on visual action comedy, I would just screen this clip and let the class work it out for themselves. Let’s have a look.
What you can’t appreciate watching that clip out of context is the degree to which it’s been set up. Throughout the twenty-five minutes leading up to this, every single one of those props has appeared, carefully placed around the set so that everything is in exactly the right place when the big finale hits. Sometimes we see them featured, other times they’re just in the background, but everything is just where it needs to be. The train-track has been a constant feature, a cute and unassuming bit of quirk up until now; the entire layout of the house has been established so that we’re familiar with it; there’s no cheap manipulation for the sake of good laugh; this entire climax is, by meticulous, easily unnoticed setup, the only possible outcome of this story.
Just the other day, while working on an unrelated project, I found myself watching the most recent Directors Roundtable from The Hollywood Reporter. This hour-long discussion featured Ridley Scott, Tom Hooper, Danny Boyle, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, (*mumbles*) and others, discussing their influences, experiences as filmmakers, and ambitions for years to come. At one point the mediator asked the group what some of the most iconic and influential scenes in film history were. Someone mentioned 2001, another mentioned Lawrence of Arabia. Fine answers, but not very creative, and they all knew it. And then, out of the blue, Danny Boyle said, “The chase scene from The Wrong Trousers,” and the whole table lit up. Everyone jumped on that, extolling it as one of the finest bits of action in film history. David O. Russell said he modeled the entire climax of Three Kings on that, screening it for his cast and crew again and again so that they could get the pacing just right.
I didn’t need to hear some of the most well-respected directors in the business commend The Wrong Trousers to know it was good, but I did find it very gratifying. If anything, that short conversation raised my respect for all of them—especially David O. Russell, because who knew? It’s just good to hear that some filmmakers do have good taste.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on for quite a while now, but I think all the best declarations of undying love should be clumsy, poorly written, and nearly indecipherable. What the public—such as it is—makes of this doesn’t really matter. Valentine’s Day is about private displays of affection. All that matters is that the two people involved know their feelings. Well, I’d like to believe that The Wrong Trousers knows how I feel. Happy Valentine’s Day.