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Film review: Wallace & Gromit: The Best of Aardman Animation

The Oscar-winning 30-minute 'toon "A Close Shave," which wraps up this collection of British clay animated shorts, is both the highlight and the selling point — but there are plenty of other pleasures on display.

"Wallace & Gromit: The Best of Aardman Animation" offers some pieces you may have already seen, along with several you probably have not.

"A Close Shave" is by far the best, most fully realized among them, telling a linear story with familiar characters and using camera techniques that parallel live-action film noir shots.

Wallace is a zany inventor who lives with his much more intelligent pooch, Gromit, and they are something of a British take on Sherman and Mr. Peabody, characters from the old "Bullwinkle Show."

Wallace and Gromit have previously been seen in the equally charming "A Grand Day Out," which sent them into outer space, and "The Wrong Trousers," in which they battled an evil penguin — another Oscar-winner.

In "A Close Shave," Gromit is accused of being a sheepnapper and Wallace becomes smitten with Wendolene, who runs a local woolen shop. And another sinister dog, with a dark secret, figures into the plot.

It's great fun, with the clay characters being shaped to move and react quite naturally, both on a human and humorous level. Park's knack for detail is nothing short of remarkable.

Of the rest, the best-known is "Creature Comforts," Park's Oscar-winner that features a variety of anthropomorphic zoo animals discussing the pros and cons of living in a caged environment.

Park also contributed a series of 30-second commercials with animals endorsing electrical appliances, capitalizing on the popularity of "Creature Comforts." (If they remind you of the current talking-car Chevron campaign, that's because those are also the work of the folks at Aardman.)

Great stuff — and, my, how far we've come since "Gumby"!

Some non-Park shorts in the collection range, which range from the weird to the wonderful, include:

— Bizarre British televison pranksters Pib and Pog, whose dark comic sensibility may bring Bill Plympton's work to mind. (Look quick for the Mr. Potato Head cameo . . . which came long before "Toy Story.")

— Rex the Runt, and his strange friends, who spoof TV cliches (there's also a brief, hilarious lampoon of David Lynch's "Eraser-head," of all things).

— "Early Bird," a crazy-quilt of Rube Goldberg machinations in the service of an early morning deejay.

— "Wat's Pig," the most ambitious of the non-Park efforts, is by Peter Lord, a most amusing tale of two medieval brothers separated at birth, as one is raised in the palace and one in poverty after being taken in by a pig. ("Babe" meets "The Prince and the Pauper"?)

Though not rated, "Wallace & Gromit: The Best of Aardman Animation" would probably get a PG for a few mild cuss words and some cartoon violence.