The Oscar-Nominated Short Films" at the Charles Theatre this weekend feature the most captivating comedy team in live or animated films today.
That doughy, provincial Brit, Wallace, and his wily, agile dog, Gromit, have come back in Oscar-nominated glory with "A Matter of Loaf and Death." They are made of Plasticine - clay mixed with oil and pigment. But their creator, Nick Park, continues to mold that material into alternately outrageous and beguiling expressions of courage, panic, frustration and devotion.
Over the course of three previous Oscar-honored shorts ("A Grand Day Out" was nominated, "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave" won), and one Oscar-winning feature ("Curse of the Were-Rabbit"), Park has devised increasingly devilish ways of testing the household loyalty of Gromit, the mute canine who is vastly deeper and more intelligent than Wallace, his supposed master. Here Gromit brings new distinction to the quality of being "dogged."
In this installment, 62 West Wallaby Street, the endearing duo's home, has become the headquarters for Top Bun, a granary and bakery complete with its own windmill and "Dough to Door" delivery service. Gromit has weathered Wallace's risky flirtations before, but none of Wallace's affairs has been deadlier or more uproarious than his romance with former "Bake-O-Lite" spokesmodel Piella Bakewell, who enters their life just as someone is killing the Great (and even Not-So-Great) Bakers of Britain.
If you've known any florid suitor who has tried to transform an understated bachelor's pad into a House Beautiful replete with flounces and flowers, you will surrender in laughter to this movie long before the bravura Agatha Christie-meets-"Aliens" climax.
All the pop-culture jokes - including a droll, dough-kneading riff on the pottery throw in "Ghost," complete with "Unchained Melody" - register not as scattershot burlesques, but as part of the grand cracked frieze of international media folklore. Piella Bakewell commands "Walkies" just as Barbara Woodhouse instructed dog owners to do in the 1980s: a prime audio memento of the era both here and across the Atlantic.
And Park has unerring taste when it comes to burlesquing other movies. Near the start, when Wallace halts Piella's runaway bicycle, the director parodies Spider-Man halting the runaway elevated train in the best of all Spidey movies, "Spider-Man 2." A spooky staircase scene contains a cunning echo of Hitchcock's "Psycho."
When Wallace proclaims, "I've got a bomb in me pants" - and finds himself unable to dispose of it - he's paying proper tribute to Adam West's Batman in the camp-classic 1966 "Batman" movie, who memorably was forced to say, "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb."
Gromit's room sports a poster for "Citizen Canine." This character has earned the comparison. Is there any animated figure more improbably expressive than Gromit? His floppy ears register as question marks or exclamation points; his eyes roll and his brow folds into ineffable expressions of skepticism and concern.
"A Matter of Loaf and Death" extends his range. In earlier adventures, Wallace, a mad inventor, fashioned would-be labor-saving devices that actually created tons of labor for Gromit, who made the crucial adjustments that got the gimmicks to work. In this film, Gromit takes the bit between his teeth, and after reading "Electronic Surveillance for Dogs," creates his own metal detector. And romance fills Gromit's heart without confusing his head: It's sweetly risible and ultimately touching when Gromit forms a tentative bond with Piella's abused toy poodle Fluffles. Park puts more daffy credibility into Gromit's burgeoning chemistry with this nervous yet still feisty French pooch than American moviemakers have put into any romantic comedy in recent years.
Once again, for 29 minutes, Gromit is our hero - and this time, he's Fluffles' hero, too. When he regains control of his realm, all is right with the world.
If you go
"The Oscar-Nominated Short Films" will play in two separate slates of roughly 90 minutes each - one for live action, one for animation - starting today at the Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St. Tickets are $6 for matinees, $8 for evening showings. Call 410-727-3456 or go thecharles.com.
The other Oscar-nominated shorts
This giddy, inventive nightmare chase from France, set in Los Angeles and out of this world, wrings nonstop surprise and a sort of beauty from a vision of corporate logos taking over Earth, the solar system and the Milky Way. It leaves you perched on just the right spot between exhilaration and exhaustion.
"Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty": Americans should embrace this Irish cartoon as a worthy update of "Fractured Fairy Tales" from "Rocky and Bullwinkle": a computer-animated crone tells her frightened granddaughter her own embittered version of "The Sleeping Beauty," rendered in an elegant, cracked version of classical 2-D animation.