While A Grand Day Out showcased the whimsy and invention of Wallace & Gromit, The Wrong Trousers brought the stop-motion characters into a darker story, with crime, sinister intentions, and a gun-toting penguin.
A Grand Day Out was exactly as the title suggests, introducing us to the British inventor and his quiet clever dog; few would expect the dark spiral that poor Wallace & Gromit dove into. The three short films that followed each took on a more overtly sinister tone – from the penguin burglar to a malfunctioning cyber-dog to a serial killer out for her baker’s dozen – but The Wrong Trousers started the contrasting criminal undertone to enormous success, earning the 1993 film and the burgeoning studio an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.
The film begins with Gromit’s birthday, February 12, and a pair of self-walking trousers to take Gromit for walks so Wallace doesn’t have to. Although Wallace is proud of the technology, from NASA no less, this does come after a breakfast discussion of needing to economize; those trousers, and the convenience they bring for Wallace, couldn’t have been cheap. By the time Gromit is back from his bot-controlled walk, Wallace has put their spare room up for rent. The tenant who moves in, a suspiciously creepy penguin, decides he likes Gromit’s room better. He moves in, and begins moving Gromit out with cold manipulation for his own criminal ends.
Gromit does not speak, a strong touch of realism for an animated dog character, and neither does Feathers McGraw, our penguin miscreant, which is also realistic for an animated criminal penguin. Wallace is the only character with speaking lines, yet the majority of the story is held by the two non-speaking characters. Gromit displays the full emotional gamut throughout the film, making the audience connect with him almost immediately from the first eye roll as he opens his musical birthday card. And he keeps the audience with him as he becomes a silent spy to keep his rather unobservant owner safe. But Wallace’s safety is no concern for the little penguin cat-burglar, who walks the audience through his plan most efficiently without any speech – merely a wall and a tape measure.
The film has a considerable Hitchcockian element, introduced from the opening musical score. There is first the now-familiar Wallace & Gromit theme, but that devolves into a sudden ominous stretch as the camera shows the trousers’ shadow and the title pops onscreen. The music continues that stop-and-go attitude, even giving way to silence during the more tense scenes only to pick up again with strong notes. The music added to that odd Hitchcockian tone, odd because was it was unexpected given the light-hearted short film that had started it all in 1989. Much had changed in those four years.
After the newly established creepy tone, the next most noticeable difference is the highly improved animation. The characters themselves are smoother and cleaner, and the production design is more polished, with more of Wallace’s inventions on display in more of the house than the small sitting room, the fridge, or the incredibly large basement. Here we see the dining room, the rest of the sitting room, the backyard, and the entire upper floor of the house. Watching A Grand Day Out (a student film) directly before The Wrong Trousers, the difference in quality is astonishing – more movement, more emotion, more strength of characters. This short was the defining moment for Wallace & Gromit, for creator Nick Park, for Aardman Animations, and it was absolutely cracking.
Feathers McGraw remains one of the creepiest and unusual animated villains. His quest for a giant diamond, his engineering expertise with the trousers, his flashing eyes, his need to pretend to be a chicken, his gun-wielding like some Western desperado, and his yellow fish wallpaper are all little characteristics that build up to a classic villain. He’s cold, manipulative, silent, and clever, and the audience can’t help but watch him with wrapt attention and fascination; there will always be a curiosity attached to this penguin and his misdeeds.
With a high-stakes chase scene, featuring a high-speed model train and Wallace in his underwear, the short film reaches its climax and a satisfactory conclusion. Although not the most violent or directly scary of the Wallace & Gromit series, The Wrong Trousers is the beginning of the era, the short film that really started it all, and the most classic work of suspense in animation. Even better than a rocket to the moon, The Wrong Trousers takes the audience into a mystery suitable and sinister for all ages.