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"Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention" Blu-ray is Cracking Good Science Fun

by on March 23, 2012

The bad news about Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention from an animation fan’s perspective is that Aardman’s famous stop-motion duo don’t get all that much screen time in each of the six 30-minute episodes of the series. The good news is that their gags and asides are as funny and entertaining as they ever have been, and they’re used in service of a surprisingly entertaining show about some of the quirkier and more offbeat sectors of science. Depth of scientific knowledge is not a prerequisite to enjoy Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention; the show is quite accessible to anybody with a sense of curiosity and the interest to follow along. I’m not entirely sure why the BBC and Aardman teamed up to make this show in 2010, but I’m glad they did and even happier that Lionsgate has imported it to the United States on DVD and Blu-ray.

The delightful introductory sequence features some familiar gags and sets as Wallace gets dressed for work using one of his Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions, while Gromit busily prepares their broadcast studio. After that, the two mostly serve as a framing device for live-action sequences about science and inventors, often focusing on the hobbyist scientists or on lesser known sectors of science. Most of these segments are narrated by actor Ashley Jensen (who also worked with Aardman as Bryony the wrapping elf in Arthur Christmas), with one segment per episode about “ideas that never got off the drawing board” led by Jem Stansfield and one more “Contraption Countdown” segment led by Wallace’s archivist Goronwy in voice-over (actually the voice of John Sparkes). The inimitable Peter Sallis returns as Wallace, while Gromit shows he has lost none of his gift for mute physical comedy. Unfortunately, the structure of the show means that Gromit gets even less screen time, since Wallace is the one who needs to provide introductions.

Each episode has a specific theme, such as inventions inspired by nature, flight, safety, or transportation. I’m probably most impressed at how often the show is willing to show its scientists failing in their experiments, and at the show’s focus on good ideas that never quite made it to anything practical. To paraphrase Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, science is hard, but that’s what makes it great. The scientists and inventors in Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention may encounter failure, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve failed. In “Reach for the Sky,” Britain’s one-man NASA Steve Bennett fails repeatedly at getting his homemade rockets airborne, but that just makes it all the more inspirational when one of his designs finally gets off the launch pad and into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. It’s incredibly interesting to hear about the frequency-hopping torpedo invented during World War II by famed screen bombshell Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil, which evolved to modern-day spread-spectrum cell phone technology even though Lamarr and Antheil’s invention was never adopted by the Navy. Some of the most fun segments spotlight home inventors, such as the intrepid British civilian attempting to build his own jetpack (most amusing is his list of the myriad ways the invention can kill its wearer), or the Russian citizen who’s spent 30 years perfecting his own personal mini-submarine.

. And, of course, there are the unmitigated success stories, like Trevor Baylis’ invention of the wind-up radio. There is also a segment on William Kamkwamba, a self-taught young Malawian who dropped out of secondary school but learned how to build windmills from a book in his library, bringing electricity to his remote village for the first time and earning himself a scholarship to Dartmouth, where he will graduate in 2014.

The Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention Blu-ray presents all six episodes of the TV series in full 1080p high-definition video, accompanied by a 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack. There are a healthy heap of chapter stops within each episode, although I would have appreciated placing the first one right after the opening credits sequence. The British slang and use of the metric system may throw off some American viewers occasionally, but the former is easy to figure out from context and the latter is easy enough to solve with a trip to Google and its unit conversion function (try typing “127 kilograms to pounds”). The disc’s sole bonus feature is a set of six short segments where host Ricky Martin (not the Latino singer) shows how to build a wacky contraption based on segments of the main show, using common household items. These are surprisingly entertaining, though I suspect only the most determined would be willing to try building some of his devices.

I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention walking into it, but am glad I took a chance on it. It’s sort of a mix of PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers and Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, run through a healthy filter of British eccentricity and hosted by two genuine luminaries of the animation world. Science may be hard, but it’s also a lot of fun with Wallace and Gromit.

Don’t forget to check out our retrospective of coverage of the works of Aardman Animation Studios, too.

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