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"Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf & Death" Full-Frame Folly, Blu-ray Better Bet

by on September 22, 2009

Don't buy this.Twenty years ago, Nick Park finally finished “A Grand Day Out,” a stop-motion short film he had been working on for nearly six years, starring a good-natured, cheese-loving inventor named Wallace and his faithful, mute, and far more intelligent dog Gromit. The pair clearly had staying power, delivering three more short films, one full-length feature, and numerous commercials and other brief films in 20 years. Unfortunately, they seem to be relegated to cult status in the United States, with their feature The Curse of the Were-Rabbit ending up a box-office disappointment despite winning the Best Animated Film Oscar, and their home video rights jumping around between Fox, Warner Home Video, and DreamWorks. Now, Lionsgate is taking its turn at the plate, bringing the duo’s latest short film, “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” to the United States as a stand-alone single-disc DVD, and as part of a new collection of all the Wallace & Gromit short films on 4 DVDs or one Blu-ray disc. The release of the new short is definitely something to get excited about, but my colleague HellCat has already reviewed the British DVD of “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” and unfortunately reveals that Wallace & Gromit’s American fans are getting a bit shortchanged in the deal.

At the start of “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” Wallace and Gromit have converted their little home into a full-scale bakery and delivery service, “Top Bun,” just as a serial killer is targeting bakers. While on a routine delivery run, Wallace catches sight of Piella Bakewell, the former spokesmodel for the Bake-O-Lite bread company, leading to a whirlwind romance that drives a wedge between Wallace and Gromit. And what exactly is Piella’s poodle Fluffies hiding, anyway?

Keep your eye on FluffiesTo describe much more of “A Matter of Loaf and Death” would give away the farm, if it hasn’t been given away already. This is probably the greatest weakness of the short: even though I don’t think that the movie is intended to be much of a mystery, it’s way too easy to spot too many of the plot twists. In fact, “A Matter of Loaf and Death” feels a bit too much like a remake of “A Close Shave,” hitting a lot of the same story beats and plot structure, changing the names and many of the incidental details. Add in a much greater reliance on relatively contemporary pop-culture gags (only one of which isn’t funny if you don’t know the reference being made) and “A Matter of Loaf and Death” ends up feeling rather derivative throughout.

However, despite the sense of déjà vu, “A Matter of Loaf and Death” is still extremely entertaining largely due to the charisma and chemistry between its two leads. Even if we know where this is all going, it’s still quite fun to get there with Wallace and Gromit. As if it needs to be said, Aardman is continually improving their craft with each successive film, and “Loaf and Death” is certainly the most technically impressive Wallace and Gromit film yet. Despite having no mouth and no spoken dialogue, Gromit can express more with his eyes and his brow than many live-action actors can, let alone animated ones. Just the subtlest changes in his expression communicate his deep sense of apprehension in the opening moments of the movie, and a quick eye-roll of frustration near the end is a marvelous throwaway bit that plays beautifully. His body language when Wallace asks him a tremendously leading question halfway through is also one of the funniest gags in the entire movie. As always, Peter Sallis keeps Wallace endearingly dim, ensuring that we can forgive him as easily as Gromit does despite the incredibly stupid and insensitive things he does in the movie.

Hey, where does the loaf in Wallace's left hand go?As mentioned, “A Matter of Loaf and Death” is available on a single-disc DVD, which seems to be identical to the U.K. release, except that some of the more esoteric special features weren’t imported because they would have little to no meaning in the U.S. However, I cannot recommend this disc in good conscience because it crops the widescreen movie to full-frame. This is something that probably would have gone entirely unnoticed, except that the accompanying “How They Donut” documentary in the bonus features is in anamorphic widescreen, and presents clips from the movie in their uncropped format. Most of the film frames its images dead-center, so not much information is actually lost, but several shots end up feeling rather cramped and there are others where information is genuinely lost in the re-framed image (click on any thumbnail in this review to see comparison shots between the widescreen and cropped full-frame presentation). The images from HellCat’s review show that the U.K. got the proper widescreen formatting of the movie, so it seems that someone made a conscious choice to chop out about 33% of the movie because, apparently, ignorant Americans still complain about seeing black bars on their TV sets.

The single-disc DVD also presents the movie in Dolby Digital 2.0 rather than the full 5.1 surround sound format on the Blu-ray disc. For completeness’ sake, I should point out that the bonus 20-minute documentary “How They Donut” is rather interesting, although a little bit lightweight, and the commentary track by Nick Park and editor David McCormick is not bad, although it’s a bit light on information and suffers from quite a few notable dead spots. There is also a bonus episode of Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep which is endearing and entertaining, although it seems our British friends are getting more image for their money on that show as well. Finally, there is a Wallace and Gromit video game demo listed on the packaging, but it is also clearly stated to be Windows only, so I was not able to try it out in my all-Mac household. It’s also adding insult to injury, but the DVD seems to have imported an analog to Disney’s worthless “FastPlay” feature, and like “FastPlay,” it serves only to slow things down no matter what you’re trying to do. It also lacks many niceties like a chapter selection menu, and has a nasty habit of starting things on its own if left alone for too long. The single-disc DVD is a rather poor showing, all in all.

A special anniversary collection of all four Wallace and Gromit shorts is being released simultaneously, both on a 4-disc DVD and a single Blu-ray disc. The bonus content on both sets seems to be identical, but I can’t imagine that Lionsgate would manufacture two different DVDs for “Loaf and Death,” so I suspect that the 4-disc DVD set should also be avoided for the same reasons enumerated above. However, the Blu-ray disc is as outstanding as the 1-disc DVD is awful, avoiding all of the sins listed above and adding a gloriously remastered high-definition image as the cherry on top. It’s true that the high-defintion image makes it easier than ever to spot the occasional fingerprint on a model, but I find that to be an endearing side-effect of the process, just as the Xerox process used by Disney will occasionally reveal an animator’s guide line. If nothing else, the high-definition image makes it easier than ever to marvel at Aardman’s craft and skill in model-making and set-dressing. The first Wallace and Gromit film, “A Grand Day Out,” looks absolutely spectacular: sharp, clear, and without a hint of film grain, dust, or scratches, and is as fresh and original now as it was 20 years ago. “A Close Shave” is also revealed in anamorphic widescreen glory for the first time as well (previous U.S. releases all seem to be either full-frame or non-anamorphic). All 4 of the movies also get new 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, which don’t come into play very often but add a very pleasing sonic punch when they do. Like the works of Pixar, Aardman dodges the problem of advancing technology making the older films look dated by ensuring that we stay interested in the characters. We may be dazzled by the effects work at first (or surprised at how primitive it looks compared to current technology), but before long we’re too busy following Wallace and Gromit to notice the technology.

The Get-U-What?There is also a solid set of extras to go along with the movies themselves. All four get audio commentary tracks that are recycled from earlier releases. They’re decent, but like the one for “Loaf and Death,” there are many dead spots and tricks that go sadly unexplained, so these commentaries can be safely skipped by the more casual fan. There are four “making of” featurettes: “Amazing Adventures of Wallace and Gromit,” which covers the duo’s work from “A Grand Day Out” all the way to the Were-Rabbit movie; “Inside The Wrong Trousers,” which focuses exclusively on that movie; a quick and efficient “How It Was Done” featurette that focuses on effects shots in “A Close Shave;” and the “How They Donut” featurette covering “Loaf and Death.” Some of the featurettes seem to be in standard-definition, and look it. The 10 “Cracking Contraptions” shorts are also on the complete collection, although they are also out-of-order in the “Play All” sequence, since the Autochef’s remains appear in “The Turbo Diner” before “The Autochef.” The same bonus episode of Shaun the Sheep comes as well (still in full-screen, and in standard definition to boot). As before, the video game demo is Windows only and would require a computer with a Blu-ray drive as well.

Whether you’re a longtime Wallace and Gromit fan eagerly awaiting the newest movie or a neophyte to their world, the U.S. release of “A Matter of Loaf and Death” is cause for celebration. Considering the quality of earlier releases, it’s not too hard for many Wallace & Gromit fans to justify yet another purchase of the Wallace and Gromit short films, but only if you have a Blu-ray player to get the full, uncut versions. Between this DVD’s gaffe and the horrid hatchet job done to the Fleischer Brothers’ Gulliver’s Travels, it doesn’t seem to be a good year for framing in animation.

NOTE: Images in this review are from the DVD, and are not representative of the high-definition image on the Blu-ray disc.

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