Amy Tan vs. Wallace & Gromit

I hereby confess that I have a natural aversion to best-sellers. My feeling is that in order to become hugely popular, art can’t be very demanding and that it probably panders to a low common denominator and that it probably has something fundamentally wrong with it. If my own work ever hits the best-seller lists, of course, I am perfectly ready to chalk that up as an anomaly.

And there are anomalies. The folks at Pixar, for example, have achieved a string of popular successes by paying very close attention (except in the case of the recent Cars, which I thought was a letdown) to the twin arts of story-telling and character development. Nick Parks’ Wallace & Gromit claymation pieces, also very popular, are also marvels of the arts.

And then there’s Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses. Until recently I’ve been more or less avoiding Tan, for the reasons stated above, but the other week a friend asked me to go through a pile of books she was going to dump, and I picked out Senses and spent a frustrating couple of days with it. Frustrating because when Tan is in form she writes beautifully, and she does such a fine job of developing the narrator’s odd half-sister Kwan. Kwan is priceless. She’s a Chinese nutcase dropped into the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’s great fun watching her go. Unfortunately, the narrator herself has no evident personality at all, and the relationship between the sisters is told, not shown. I couldn’t care less about the narrator. Nor could I care less about her husband, who is a cardboard cutout, nor about their faltering marriage. Unfortunately, the story turns out to be about how Kwan devotes her life to saving the marriage because of an obligation that she has picked up due to what happened to the three of them in a past set of lives. Even more unfortunately, the crucial events occur in China, where Kwan’s nuttiness, the only interesting thing about the book, is no longer that nutty. Furthermore, by that time plot has reared its ugly head, so that the characters are too busy being shoved around the stage to spend much time showing who they are.

Against this sad disaster of a ghost story I would like to set Nick Parks’ The Wrong Trousers. Like Kwan, Wallace is a nutcase. Unlike Senses, Trousers has no narrator. Wallace’s foil is Gromit, who doesn’t even have a mouth. Here’s the story: Wallace has bought a pair of techno-trousers to give to Gromit for his birthday. This is a terrible present and an expensive one, and the financial situation is now so bad that Wallace advertises for a lodger. Enter a penguin, who takes over Gromit’s room, Wallace’s affection, and the techno-trousers, which he uses in an evil plan that involves kidnapping Wallace and stealing a famous diamond. Gromit comes to Wallace’s rescue, saves the day, and wins back his rightful spot as Wallace’s pal.

The brilliance of this short film is that nothing – neither the techno-trousers, the penguin and his evil plan, nor even the funniest chase scenes using trains since Buster Keaton – distracts us from the one important thing: the relationship between Wallace and Gromit. Howard Hawks, despite what I think of him as a teller of stories, is right when he says that the interesting thing is watching the relationships between characters. Which is why stories with only one interesting character are so hard to pull off.

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