The centerpiece of the new cartoon collection, "Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation," is a nearly half-hour clay animated piece by England's Nick Park about a goofy inventor, his Plato-reading pooch and the jewel-thief penguin who upsets their routine.
It's called "The Wrong Trousers" and stars Wallace and Gromit, the man-and-dog team of Park's equally delightful "A Grand Day Out" a few years ago. (Park is also responsible for "Creature Comforts," which won an Oscar in 1990.)The plot has Wallace working on "techno-trousers," a robotlike pair of pants that is operated with a remote control device. The pants, complete with magnetic shoes, allow the wearer to climb walls, walk on the ceiling, etc. And they come in handy for a foul fowl with evil plans for them.
Wallace rents a room to get some much-needed cash, unaware that the seemingly benign penguin who moves in plans to steal a diamond using his invention. So, it's Gromit to the rescue, as the film builds toward an exciting and hilarious climax involving a toy train that runs throughout Wallace's house.
Park is wildly inventive, filling "The Wrong Trousers" with various Rube Goldberg devices, developing very strong character- izations, loading the visual imagery with sight gags and wonderful little touches while dazzling us technically.
Unfortunately, the rest of this "Spike and Mike" collection is decidedly hit and miss - including a few that have passed this way before. But there are some highlights, including the last piece, "The Prince and the Princess," a bit of French spoofery that shows the title characters in silhouette, being turned into various animals as they kiss; the disturbing "Pro and Con," based on interviews with a jailer and an inmate at the Oregon Penitentiary; "Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase," which has oil paintings morphing into one another, from Van Gogh to Picasso to Warhol; the brief but brilliant "How to Make a Decision," a computer animated Rube Goldberg-style piece; etc.
An elaborate showpiece, "Screen Play," which is a puppet animated depiction of a classical Japanese stage production, is oddly stilted in its camera work until the final few scenes. And though it's only puppetry, the blood and nudity here may be offensive to some viewers.
Like most of these collections, this one has its highs and lows - but "The Wrong Trousers" is without question worth the price of admission all by itself.
"Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation" is not rated but would probably get a PG-13 for animated violence and nudity, as well as a few profanities.