Aardman Animation's Wallace & Gromit, the lovable clay duo created by animator Nick Park, are celebrating their 20th birthday, but they haven't seen much small-screen action during the last 15 years. This isn't counting their 2005 big-screen adventure, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, or a handful of invention-themed shorts (dubbed Cracking Contraptions), but it proves one point: they're almost too big for TV now. Spin-offs like Shaun the Sheep feel perfectly at home on the smaller medium, yet the prospect of new W&G material is something else entirely.
Their latest made-for-TV adventure (and their first since 1995's A Close Shave) is A Matter of Loaf and Death, and it literally went by in a blur: production began in January 2008 and it aired in time for Christmas. In comparison, their debut adventure (A Grand Day Out) took roughly six years to complete, since it was practically a one-man show. From the first frame onward, it's easy to see that Loaf and Death is polished, slick, and has been crafted by more than one individual, yet it still retains the personal, hand-crafted atmosphere that has become one of Aardman's hallmarks. It's certainly closer in tone to A Close Shave and Were-Rabbit than the first two outings---but even though the story feels familiar at times, A Matter of Loaf and Death is still an exciting and enjoyable ride.
Our brisk, 30-minute adventure revolves a series of murders: twelve to be exact, and the victims are all bakers. This literally spells disaster for Wallace and Gromit, who have recently started their own "dough to door" delivery service. It's not all doom and gloom, though: Wallace has also recently become captivated by Piella Bakewell, a former bakery spokeswoman who's put on a few pounds since her glory days. Piella's poodle, Fluffles, even takes a liking to Gromit, but it's easy to see that she's also looking for protection from her occasionally assertive master. Before long, we're able to connect the dots: Piella seems to have a darker side, so it's up to our dynamic duo to deliver justice. As usual, Gromit does most of the legwork.
Fans of both A Close Shave and Were-Rabbit, of course, should be able to spot the similarities quickly. There's a sinister force just below the surface, a damsel in distress...and despite the carnage being carried out, it's treated lightly and paired with plenty of terrific sight gags. Those looking for an entirely new adventure may find themselves slightly disappointed with Loaf and Death, but the disappointment won't last long. As usual, the animation, voice work and music are absolutely top-notch; in fact, the only minor complaint is that it seems to be over a little too quickly. This is, of course, a natural handicap, since W&G are fresh off a feature-length adventure, but it's hardly a deal-breaker. From top to bottom, A Matter of Loaf and Death is a charming, fast-paced adventure that Aardman enthusiasts should certainly enjoy.
Presented on DVD by Hit Entertainment, Wallace & Gromit arrives to Region 1 roughly nine months after its British broadcast debut...and aside from being late to the party, this DVD doesn't measure up to reasonable standards. The included bonus features are well-rounded and appropriate, but a below-average technical presentation will disappoint those looking for a truly definitive package.
It's hard to believe that pan-and-scan is still being practiced, but sure enough: A Matter of Loaf and Death has been cropped from its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio for this Region 1 release. To add frustration to the fire, an accompanying behind-the-scenes documentary is presented in 16x9 widescreen...which includes film clips in the correct aspect ratio. No, this is not a joke; in fact, here's a bit of proof. Why Hit Entertainment couldn't have preserved the original format---or given us both options, at the very least---is simply dumbfounding, especially since the Region 2 and Blu-Ray releases got the aspect ratio right. It's almost no surprise at this point, though: every single one of Aardman's Shaun the Sheep Region 1 releases have been butchered by Hit Entertainment already.
As for the transfer itself? The colors are a little flat, but image detail is fine and black levels are consistent. Digital problems are kept to a minimum and...oh, who am I kidding? This release is cropped from the original aspect ratio and deserves to be grilled for it.
On the audio front, things have also been dumbed down a bit. The Region 2 release of A Matter of Loaf and Death is blessed with a full-fledged 5.1 Surround mix; here, we're limited to Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Dialogue is crisp and clear and the music rarely fights for attention, but it's obvious that the original version of this film sounded much more ambitious. Optional English captions (advertised as subtitles on the menu) are also included during the main feature only.
On a similar note is "How They Donut: The Making of A Matter of Loaf and Death" (20:19), the previously-mentioned behind-the-scenes documentary presented in 16x9 widescreen (grrr!). Featuring participation from members of the Aardman creative team, there's plenty of great info and visuals on display here. As a fan of animation and sculpture, it's always nice to peek behind the curtain.
Two minor inclusions round out the bonus features: first up is a Video Game Demo of "Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures" for the PC (and Mac, presumably?). This talky demo is a bit clunky and more confusing than fun, but maybe younger audiences may find it more engaging. Last but not least is a Shaun the Sheep Bonus Episode, "Off the Baa!" (7:08); like the Region 1 DVD of the same name, this short adventure is also cropped from its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. No optional subtitles or Closed Captions have been provided during any of these bonus features, which is another unfortunate oversight.
It's been almost 15 years since Wallace and Gromit last starred in a small-screen adventure, but A Matter of Loaf and Death shows that Aardman hasn't lost a step. Our story's suspenseful twists and turns are peppered with surprises, slapstick and sight gags, though many story elements are nearly identical to A Close Shave and Curse of the Were-Rabbit. All things considered, though, there's more than enough great material here to consider Loaf and Death a worthy entry into the Wallace & Gromit canon. Unfortunately, Hit Entertainment's one-disc package is a real disappointment: despite a few well-intentioned extras, the main feature's aspect ratio is compromised and the audio has also been watered down. That's more than enough reason to ignore this release, though region-free fans can easily import the widescreen UK version for a similar price. If you don't have a region-free player yet (or a Blu-Ray player), this one might be worth a weekend spin. Rent It at the very most!
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.