Like the quality-transcending studio that is Pixar Animation, the British studio Aardman Animations has continuously distanced itself from failure, both financially and critically. The smaller-scoped projects (Creature Comforts, Angry Kid, Shaun the Sheep) have such a resounding, singular voice that they feel like personal pet projects, despite the large number of people needed to accomplish the tedious art form that is Plasticine animation. This trait carries on into their longer efforts, as well, never more so than in 2005's Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the first full-length feature showcasing Aardman's poster boy and dog. This duo has never disappointed in their madcap misadventures, ones often revolving around one or many Rube Goldberg-inspired contraptions. But then, never say never. Wallace & Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death only gets a passing grade taking into account the lovable history of the characters themselves. As an unrelated standalone, it's a wildly unremarkable piece that's about 15 years too late in the game.
The first strike against comes early on while just looking at the DVD packaging. The running time listed is 87 minutes, and this disc is labeled an all-new "feature-length adventure." I actually thought I was watching some pretty transgressive fiction when, by minute 25, a three-act structure had come to full fruition, and I was clueless as to where the story could possibly go. Of course, it then literally went nowhere, and the credits began to roll. Surely not, I thought; but yes. Listed on both the DVD cardboard and case was this erroneous time, and while I'm pleased that I didn't have to give this story another hour of my time, I still felt swindled.
The story for Loaf and Death, in a nutshell (or perhaps a folded crepe), is that there's someone out there killing bakers. The feature is pegged as a "murder mystery," though there's only one murder during its span, and the mystery is in figuring out why genius creator Nick Park would fall back on such a hackneyed plot. In this tale, Wallace & Gromit are...wait for it...bakers. Specifically, they own and operate "Top Bun," a bread bakery.
After a lead-in scene gives rise (bread joke) to the murder plot, we see an all-new "wake Wallace up and serve him breakfast" machine, a device I'm weary of by now. Wallace then, by happenstance, drives by "Bake-O-Lite" bread lady Piella Bakewell, whom he fancies. They dish, and she soon pays him a home visit, accompanied by her shaky-legged poodle, Fluffles. She is the only other character introduced in the story. Take this into account and tell me where the mystery lies. A suspicious Gromit investigates and finds evidence confirming the obvious. The second act follows my least-favorite narrative conceit ever: the character who blindly follows his heart, instead of someone he's known and trusted for ages. Whether it's Chandler not believing Joey when he tells him Janice cheated on him, or a zillion other examples, I hate it. The only thing keeping its use here above water is the fact that Gromit cannot communicate vocally with his dim-bulb master. That's not a free pass, however. The dog can run a bakery and drive a car; he can probably write a note. Now, plot-wise, all that's left is physical conflict for the characters to battle out, and then that's it. Another couple of years to wait and see if these guys can weave a better yarn.
These are characters I truly enjoy on many different levels, so I feel terrible bashing this thing. You'll notice I speak no ill will of the visuals, which are of standard high quality. The bread factory itself is an amazing thing to watch in motion when taking into consideration how decidedly unmechanical the materials are. Gromit has some nice detective work going on in scenes that play to the noir genre. And the final scenes are energetic and full of action, but do nothing to subvert the benign storytelling. The writing is as good as the plot allows, I guess, and I will gamely ruin the best joke for you here: in introducing himself to Piella, Wallace deadpans, "I'm Wallace. I'm in bread myself," to which Gromit raises his eyebrows. Smart, black, and subtle. That's what I expect from these guys, and this is it, at four minutes into the picture.
The original concept of Wallace & Gromit was a simple man making very complex machines that perform simple processes. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit upped the ante with a complicated plot enhanced by complicated contraptions, plot devices, and actual motives. A Matter of Loaf and Death stretches nothing beyond convenient measures, and would really be nothing if not for the gorgeous Plasticine landscape. It shames me to say it, but skip it, unless BBC America has it on and you happen to be bed-ridden.
It isn't a terrible disc, especially since it only cost me $9.99 at Best Buy. I totally pegged it as a bigger deal, though, thinking it was a movie. I really wish I'd first read online how short it was. And check out this annoyingness. There are previews for Shaun the Sheep, Battle for Terra, and Thomas the Train Engine, which play both before AND after the movie. That's ridiculous. I understand that it's geared towards kids, and that may be why the story was so sheltered, but I'd rather skip previews just once, please. There's an episode of Shaun the Sheep included, and it's generally amusing, as they all are.
For feature-specific extras, we have a commentary by creator/director Nick Park and editor David McCormick. It's droll and fairly entertaining. A lot of back-patting that annoyed me, given the less-than-jovial attitude I had towards the material they glorify. The only other one worth a jig is a 20-minute making-of called "How They Donut." I could really watch Plasticine and stop-motion animation creation for hours on end. It's a truly gratifying thing to see the literally hands-on acting of the characters. But again, I'd rather the origins of something I enjoyed. The last extra is a demo for the video game Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures, which I played a little bit of, but I hate demos. Incidentally, the game seemed like a neat time-waster. I've spoken too negatively of Wallace & Gromit (something I never foresaw), so now I must pay penance by watching everything else they've appeared in, happily. This DVD is going to collect some dust in the meantime.