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‘Wallace & Gromit in ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death”/’Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’

Wallace & Gromit whip Harry Potter

by Giovanni Fazio

It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy; cicadas are chirping and skirts are riding high. And we all know what that means for the cinema: a wave of sequels and franchise movies to last us until there’s a chill in the air once again. The “Transformers” sequel is already out there, proving that the fanboy appetite for vengeance-seeking toys and Megan Fox in short shorts is near insatiable.

Nothing could be further than the inhuman digital bombast of a Michael Bay film, though, than the gentle humor and lovingly handcrafted claymation of Nick Park’s “Wallace & Gromit” series. Despite having begun two decades ago with “A Grand Day Out” (1989), this must still be the most low-key franchise on the planet.

Park’s first Wallace & Gromit film was his film-school project; from there, a couple of other highly popular short films (1993′s “The Wrong Trousers,” and 1995′s “A Close Shave”) for Aardman Animation convinced Dreamworks to snatch up Park as a hot property, which led to 2000′s feature-length “Chicken Run.” This left the future of W&G in doubt, but the daft duo were back in 2005 with their longest film yet, “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit”.

Park’s latest effort, “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” gives us everything we’ve come to love from a Wallace & Gromit film: moody film noir and shadowy Hitchcockian cinematography applied to a world of dopey-looking clay puppets, convoluted home-brew contraptions, gags that would make even an oyaji (old man) cringe, and that mouthless mutt who’s about 100 times more sensible than his toothy, big-eared master.

This time around, harebrained inventor Wallace and his faithful pet, Gromit, have started their own bakery, Top Bun, which features robotic bread-kneading arms and boasts the slogan “Flour to the People.” All is well, except that a serial killer has been murdering the town’s bakers one by one. Gromit begins to fear that Wallace may be the next target, but he’s too pie-eyed in love with one Piella Bakewell, a large lady who was formerly a campaign girl for Bake-o-Lite bread. Gromit suspects Piella’s intentions, and enlists the help of her mistreated poodle, Fluffles.

Park’s animation continues to impress: There’s a certain physicality to using clay figures and actual constructed sets that makes digital animation like “Monsters vs. Aliens” seem somewhat flat and weightless. The story’s a larf, and each scene is loaded with background detail and small gags that will reward repeated viewings. And the climax — which involves a forklift, a ticking time bomb, a hot-air balloon, a windmill, a pair of nuns and a hilarious quote from “Aliens” — is so tight, funny and perfectly executed that someone like Michael Bay should be forced to watch it 1,000 times (“Clockwork Orange”-style) before he’s allowed to make another film.

Another long-running franchise returns with “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the sixth installment in the boy-wizard series based on the novels by J.K. Rowling. Each film in this series has been getting consistently darker, and this one’s no exception: dark magus Voldemort’s evil is seeping into the Muggle (nonmagical) world; Harry’s fellow student, bully Draco Malfoy, is tasked with some sinister mission to execute inside Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; and Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore suffers from a withered, blackening wound, while encouraging Harry to probe the memories of potions-professor Horace Slughorn for clues about the young Tom Riddle (the boy who would later grow up to be Voldemort.)

The cast are all back — with Alan Rickman’s condescending Severus Snape and Michael Gambon’s wizened Dumbledore particularly on form — and the film’s look changes little even as the project passes from director to director.

“The Half-Blood Prince” is helmed by David Yates, a director whose resume reveals a lot of British television work, not cinema. When it comes to the big set-pieces, such as death-eaters swooping through the streets of London at dizzying speed, Yates proves up to the task, but less so when it comes to making a comprehensible story.

Every plotline in the film — bar one — seems like a MacGuffin, a motivating distraction that ultimately has nothing to do with anything. There’s much ado about the Half-Blood Prince, but when that figure is revealed at film’s end, there’s no explanation whatsoever as to why this is significant. Ditto for a subplot involving Draco and a teleportation cabinet: Scene after scene establishes that Draco can zap things into Hogwarts, but when he finally uses it to let in some death-eaters, all they do is watch Draco do something that he would have done without their help.

It’s one thing to trim the book down to size — which all the “Potter” films have done — but it’s another to lose the plot. Sloppy work here, and one hopes Yates keeps a closer eye on the script for the last chapter, due to hit our screens in 2010.

“Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death” screens with “A Day Out,” “The Wrong Trousers,” and “A Close Shave.”