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Review and interviews: Wallace & Gromit and Friends

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Wallace & Gromit and Friends and their talented creators have just arrived at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Aardman Animations. Running until October 29 this latest of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces is a virtually exhaustive exhibition of the company’s entire body of work, including their next feature film, Early Man, coming out early next year. Visiting Aardman founders and co-curators, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, working very closely with ACMI head curator Fiona Trigg and the Art Ludique museum in Paris, have delivered a generous serving of early sketches, concept art, original models, plasticine sets and, of course, the plasticine characters themselves! I was fortunate enough to hear Peter and David’s brilliant introduction to the exhibition and to chat to Fiona about what it was like to put it all together.

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All the favourites are there of course: there’s plenty to see of the famous bumbling inventor and his long-suffering dog, some very cute scenes from Shaun the Sheep and a few memorable set pieces from Chicken Run, but many visitors are likely to be surprised by just how many “friends” Wallace & Gromit actually have at Aardman, a company who also did scores of other shorts, commercials, music videos, and even other features films that never got quite as much attention as their first two. It’s easy to forget that their first Academy Award was for Nick Park’s Creature Comforts, the delightful zoo mockumentary that actually beat A Grand Day Out for Best Animated Short in 1989. Just as they’ve been making children’s films that adults can also get into, they’ve also produced some more adult-oriented works that kids are still drawn to because of the animation. As Fiona said during the launch of the exhibition, Claymation has a particular playful and tactile feel to it, a warmth that comes from its refreshing simplicity. Its animators basically get to play around with their favourite toys in front of a camera and make their little creations feel as real to the audience as they to do them. At the media preview I attended, I was very happy, but not really surprised, to see the adults having just as much fun as the tiny kids who also got to go. The wide-eyed children were thrilled to see things like Wallace’s vegetable garden, the flying machine from Chicken Run and the massive pirate ship in the back room, right there in the flesh, while the adults were marvelling at the witty details the Aardman animators sneak into these worlds they create. I suppose that Aardman, like Disney, is usually associated with light, cheerful family entertainment, mostly because their animation style is colourful, quirky and humorous, the characters are likeable and most of their films have happy endings. For adults, this might be the overall impression, but certainly for a child these films really make you work for those moments of happiness. Many of their iconic darker scenes feature in the exhibition as well, including the chicken pie machine, Gromit’s heartbreaking night in jail, and of course, Feathers McGraw, the evil penguin from A Close Shave.

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It was also great to see some of the best comic characters from Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the CGI-animated Flushed Away and their most recent feature, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, who’ve been voiced by such British stars as Hugh Grant and Kate Winslet, actors that any directors would be thrilled to work with, although it looks like they were even more excited to be lending their voices to such classic stories and characters.

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Wallace & Gromit and Friends is a wondrous exploration of all of Aardman’s many creations and the breadth of talent behind them, bringing its visitors into the worlds of the fan favourites, introducing them to some of their more obscure works and getting them extra excited for the next adventure.

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By Christian Tsoutsouvas

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