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

Wallace & Gromit whip Harry Potter


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.

Wallace & Gromit in 'A Matter of Loaf and Death'
Director Nick Park
Run Time 29 minutes
Language English
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Director David Yates
Run Time 154 minutes
Language English

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.”