It never ceases to amaze me what gems can be turned up by those willing to forage deep enough into cinema history. As an animation enthusiast, the discovery of Ivo Caprino's Norwegian stop-motion animated film Pinchcliffe Grand Prix was a dream come true. Although it is largely unknown in Britain, Pinchcliffe Grand Prix remains the biggest box office hit of all time in Norway, where it sold 5.5 million tickets in a country with a population of 4.9 million! It is also shown on TV every Christmas in Norway in the same way that Wallace and Gromit make annual festive airings over here. I mention Wallace and Gromit specifically because Pinchcliffe Grand Prix seems to be a strong influence on Nick Park's dynamic duo. It is also an acknowledged influence on George Lucas, who borrowed from the film for the podrace sequence in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
The plot of Pinchcliffe Grand Prix is simple, even if some elements sound a tad bizarre. Bicycle repair man Theodore Rimspoke lives at the top of very large mountain, the irony being that no-one would go that far to get their bike fixed, especially since they couldn't ride it! Consequently, Theodore spends most of his time tinkering with amateur inventions. Theodore lives with his two animal companions, Sonny Duckworth, an optimistic bird, and Lambert, a melancholy, nervous hedgehog. Seeing in the news that Theodore's former assistant, Rudolph Gore-Slimey, has stolen the plans for his racing car engine and subsequently become Formula One World Champion, the trio set about building a rival car called Il Tempo Gigante, with which to challenge Gore-Slimey's ill-gotten World Champion title.
Pinchcliffe Grand Prix began life as a proposed 25 minute TV special based on the characters of cartoonist Kjell Aukrust. However, a year and a half into production the project was shut down by TV bosses who felt it was not working. With puppets and sets already made, Ivo Caprino's son Remo suggested they use them to make a full length feature film. And so work began on Pinchcliffe Grand Prix, which took three and a half years to make and was made almost entirely by a five person team. The results are astonishingly charming. The film recalls the beautiful stop-motion TV animations of Oliver Postgate and his contempories and is shot through with the sort of eccentricities and unpatronising language that are ironed out of most current children's entertainment.
Pinchcliffe Grand Prix is not without its flaws. Those who are not impressed by the magic of stop-motion animation will likely become bored by the slow pace of the first hour. A good forty minutes focuses on the acquisition of sponsorship for Theodore's racing team, which comes in the form of an Arab oil sheik, a stock comedy character of that era which has since fallen out of favour for obvious reasons. Other characters in the film are also a little ill-judged. Sonny Duckworth's relentless chirpy optimism gets a bit wearing after a while and Lambert the depressed hedgehog is simply one of the weirdest, most disturbing creations I've ever come across.
But these minor niggles seem academic if you let the magic of Pinchcliffe Grand Prix take you. For instance, even in the slow moving early scenes there are little gestures and witty lines that keep viewers like myself constantly delighted and the sets and puppets are beautiful to look at. I adored watching different characters making the long trip up and down the mountain in various vehicles, particularly the Sheik's shaky journey in his solid gold car. In a film that is far from a character-led endeavor, there are still creations to relish in the likably no-nonsense straightman Theodore, the despicable villain Gore-Slimey and the Sheik's gorilla employee who fills the roles of bouncer, chaffeur, mechanic and drummer as and when the situation calls for it.
Pinchcliffe Grand Prix will be of special interest to car lovers and especially Formula One fans. I am neither but the joy I got from the animation and incredible action sequences, I can well imagine being mirrored in Grand Prix lovers by the exquisitely realised atmosphere of a race day and the fetishistic focus on the building of the car. After its slow start, the film begins to pick up pace with the construction of Il Tempo Gigante, a midnight sabotage scene and a chaotic, superbly inventive and exhiliratingly unneccesary musical interlude! But the real draw for most viewers will be the race itself. After the lovably gentle opening hour, the Grand Prix of the title takes up the entire final third of the film and is every bit as exciting as you might hope. A surprising and delightful treat for those watching the British dub is that the voiceover duties for the last half hour are almost entirely taken over by none other than Formula One legend Murray Walker, who provides a running commentary on the race.
Murray's presence adds authenticity but Pinchcliffe Grand Prix hinges on the climactic race sequence being something special and ultimately that description proves to be an understatement. Caprino and cameraman Charley Patey use several cinematic techniques (including the most effective use of back-projection I've ever seen) to create some of the most jaw-dropping, high-speed stop-motion animation of all time. Suspense is superbly built up through a number of plotpoints including an undetected piece of sabotage and several Wacky Races-like dirty tricks, all of which create a thunderously gripping, celebratory finale which is one of the best race sequences I've come across in any medium.
Pinchcliffe Grand Prix is an animated treasure worth discovering. It's mega-popularity in Norway is well deserved and it's only a shame that it has not been widely distributed in Britain as I can easily picture it becoming a festive staple in this country too. Whether you watch it in its original Norwegian or in the English langauge dub, Pinchcliffe Grand Prix is a gem. An oddity that should satisfy fans of animation and Formula One in any country.