Wallace and Gromit are a classic comic pair.
Much smarter than his owner, the loyal Gromit is regularly forced to watch in silence as bumbling inventor Wallace gets them both into trouble. When Aardman studios and DreamWorks were working together on the Wallace and Gromit feature, The Curse of the Were Rabbit, they hit a cultural snag with the characteristic Wallace and Gromit narrative arc in which, in the end, nothing changes. This is a classic sitcom formula and is quite contrary to DreamWorks films structured around a turning point that leads to personal discovery. Wallace never learns a lesson or gains wisdom because, as Aardman founder David Sproxton explains: “The whole point is that he never does learn! The point is Gromit’s got him out of the problem yet again.”
The comedy landscape is replete with mismatched duos trading on their differences for laughs. Think of Laurel and Hardy, Burns and Allen, or our own Lano and Woodley. In countless examples, but most memorably with Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple, these relationships play out in the domestic space as a kind of compulsion, yoking each character to an identity they cannot escape. At first glance, the lovable Wallace, an innocent, cheese-eating chap from Lancashire, and Gromit, his loyal pet dog, would seem to bear little resemblance to their dysfunctional live-action counterparts. If you look a bit more closely though, Wallace’s oblivious innocence and Gromit’s steadfast loyalty bear the seeds of an exploitative relationship based on a form of warped mutual dependency. It is easy to see how Wallace depends on Gromit to smooth out glitches, clean up mistakes and allow him to remain in a state of blissful complacency. But why is Gromit complicit in this inequitable relationship? In part, this relates to his alter ego as a pet dog but also, it seems, to the satisfaction of being the fixer, albeit one who may find himself overlooked for a beady-eyed penguin or a curvaceous blonde femme fatale.
In Wallace and Gromit’s first appearance in A Grand Day Out, the relationship appears more balanced, as the duo work together to spend a day eating cheese on the moon. That said, there are already more than a few clues about how the relationship is going to head in the future when, after sawing through his saw horse (a kind of trestle stand for balancing wood), Wallace conscripts Gromit as a substitute, to support the wood he is sawing through.
According to Nick Park, Gromit in his earliest incarnation was a cat:
"I had this idea about a guy who builds a rocket in the basement of his house. I thought he had to have an assistant. So I drew a cat called Gromit. But when I came to model the cat out of clay, I found a dog easier to make."
It is impossible to imagine a cat enduring what Gromit has to put up with from Wallace. Only a dog could be relied on to give such unstinting loyalty in the face of the kind of ingratitude that leads Wallace to instantly believe the worst of Gromit in A Close Shave (“You've really let us down this time, Lad”) or to save himself by redirecting a snapping, razor-toothed “crackervac” towards his faithful pet.
When describing the design journey towards the Gromit we know and love, Park commented that plans for Gromit continued to change when he began animating and found it easier to communicate a sense of character by moving his brow: “It gave him a personality, an inner, discerning mind. Suddenly he became a contrast; a child more intelligent than his father." Gromit is really far too long-suffering for the intelligent child analogy to work very effectively; most children would rebel rather than pick up the pieces. Gromit may share his frustration with the audience through his expressive forehead – he has been described as a “silent snarker” – but he is nevertheless prepared to submit to the whims of his whacky owner, whatever they may be.
Wallace and Gromit’s relationship is further complicated by the emergence of the love triangle as a narrative motif, most incisively in The Wrong Trousers and A Matter of Loaf and Death. The pair may be caught up in a relationship of mutual dependence but Wallace never acknowledges how much he needs Gromit, whereas Gromit is only too aware of the unreliability of Wallace’s affections. The Wrong Trousers, which draws on the suspenseful plot and shadowy characters synonymous with the films of Alfred Hitchcock, introduces Feathers McGraw, a penguin criminal genius who usurps Gromit’s place in both Wallace’s heart and house. Gromit literally ends up in the doghouse, while his shifty rival sleeps in his bed and takes his place at the dining table for a bordeaux and cheese-filled tête à tête with Wallace. Drawing on film noir, the shadowy mise-en-scène communicates the sinister plot being hatched by Feathers but also hints at the disturbing underside of Wallace’s gormless exterior.
In The Wrong Trousers, even before the arrival of the creepy Feathers, the cracks in Wallace and Gromit’s relationship are communicated on the morning of Gromit’s birthday. In a cheeky parody of a 1950s American sitcom, Gromit waits expectantly for his birthday to be acknowledged only to receive presents that reveal how differently he and Wallace perceive the nature of their relationship. Wallace presents his gift of a collar and lead to Gromit with the words “You look like somebody owns you now.” This is topped off with the other part of the gift – a pair of ex-NASA techno-trousers that are “fantastic for walkies”. In this moment, Gromit, as he often does, looks at us through the camera to share his despair and confusion. A relationship based on so much misunderstanding can be a lonely one and sometimes it seem as though we – the audience – are all Gromit has.
In The Curse of the Were Rabbit, a gothic horror parody with rabbits and giant vegetables, the love triangle is handled a little differently. Wallace attracts the attention of the luscious-lipped Lady Tottington, but rather than Gromit being excluded or forgotten, he ends up being saved by a self-sacrificing Wallace (in his guise as the Were Rabbit). Moreover, in a slight twist to the traditional formula, Gromit’s attention and affections are divided between Wallace and the giant marrow he is lovingly tending. We know all along the marrow is doomed and Gromit nobly surrenders it to save Wallace but, in this case, his loyalty is matched by Wallace’s own actions. As Wallace says, “Every dog has his day.”
In A Matter of Loaf and Death, Wallace is prepared to do anything for the terrifying Piella Bakewell, who is only too well aware that Gromit is the only thing standing between her and her thirteenth victim. The fearsome Piella draws attention to a more general Aardman anxiety about women (think Queen Victoria in The Pirates!) but she holds an allure for Wallace that far surpasses anything he may have experienced in previous, more tentative, forays into the world of romance. The sight of a muzzled Gromit chained to the kitchen sink (!) is a horrifying testament to the unreliability of Wallace’s affections.
Wallace and Gromit reunite in the face of Piella’s perfidy but Gromit has discovered a soulmate of his own, Piella’s plucky pet poodle Fluffles. At the conclusion of what may be the final instalment of the Wallace and Gromit story, they drive off into the sunset with Gromit’s new love in the middle. When Gromit loses control of the steering, Wallace needs to insert some common sense: “Both paws on the wheel, lad. Concentrate!” The balance has shifted and new possibilities are on the horizon.
Susan Bye is an education programmer at ACMI and an associate of La Trobe University.