Somewhere There’s Cheese

A Grand Day Out (1989)

photo: Aardman Animations

When I was younger, someone told me the moon was made of cheese. 

I looked up at it, with its dairy-yellow brightness, its mottled holes, and I believed that person for longer than I’d like to reveal. The idea of a cheese moon comes from a 16th-century proverb:  a man who viewed the moon’s reflection in a body of water and mistook it for a wheel of cheese, crying out “the moon is made of greene [sic] cheese.” Though it’s a slightly fanciful theory (the proverb’s subject is usually referred to as “an idiot”), there’s something beautiful about this, childlike and frank.  Before NASA, widespread telescopic images, ways of getting to space, whole legions of people whose job it is to explain the stratosphere, our lens out of earth was simply earth itself, the way elements like water, light, and air transform the otherworldly into familiar, touchable things. 

It is now clear to me that the moon is not made of cheese, and space is not touchable to us, not in the way we might have hoped when we said, as children, that we wanted to be astronauts. I’m a deeply paranoid and somewhat practical person; I can’t help but think humans don’t belong in outer space. It is a place our feeble bodies cannot comprehend. In my mind, going to space means being strapped into a foil suit and tossed into the void on something like fishing wire, moving your arms around and hoping you don’t implode. The things the human body does, the way we experience life, cannot exist in space. Ordinary senses like touch and smell, even sight— looking out onto boundlessness, onto gaseous bodies, outside of the parameters of depth—are disrupted. 

Humans can’t ever really touch anything in space, unless it’s through a glove or boot, or when an object has already been brought inside a ship, or perhaps even all the way back down to earth. Unless we dare to dream a bit bigger, or, maybe, a bit smaller and lumpier, and enter a world of clay. In this special place and form, outer space is rendered tactile and approachable, that big mass of mystery shrunken down to an elementary school diorama, the surface of the moon a buttery, imperfect sphere, the sky a deep blue gradient, the air warm and miraculously breathable. 

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Director Nick Park began his short film A Grand Day Out—in which two Brits, a man and his dog, travel to space—as a final project for the National Film and Television School. In the middle of production, he was signed to the studio that would subsequently produce his later career work: Aardman Animations. With the backing of Aardman, Park requested 1 long ton (about 2,200 pounds) of plasticine, and got to work. Not a gram went to waste. 

The film opens on the cover of a book called Where to Go, which sits spine-up atop a tumbling tower of splayed travel magazines, all providing potential answers to the book’s question: suggestions of ski trips and camping trips, promises of time well-spent away from home. We follow the trail of magazines across the room, and a figure’s hands come into view. One rests on a globe, the other holds open a handbook called Picnic Guide A-Z, attention divided between the great wide world and the simplicity of a meal on a blanket.

In a flash, we’ve zoomed out to take in the entire set: a meticulously detailed room of tufted plaids and floral wallpaper, fit with tiny portraits of cheese, and warm, fringed lamps, each element made of materials you might find at your local crafting store—plasticine, paint, paper, and fabric. Within the perfect tableau sits a man and a dog. I cannot call this dog his dog;  it is clear from the way the canine carries himself, sitting upright in an armchair, leaning on his open hand and furrowing his brow as he reads a heavy tome, that this is not a relationship of man and pet, but a relationship of companions. This shot also serves as the very first glimpse of the beloved characters Wallace and Gromit: a cheese-loving inventor with moonshot ideas, and the pragmatic pooch that keeps him alive.

Claymation, as an art form, resists the future; it’s tactile and laborious, a slideshow of intricate frames. Unlike hand-drawn illustrated animation, or computer animation—which has become steadily more reliant on tech, optimized for speed and quick production—claymation will always require a distinctly direct human touch, and the production time that comes with that. It can take years to create a single hour of footage. 

My childhood in the early aughts was defined by technological advancement—pixels, synthetic sounds, the flash and click of a digital camera, cell phones shrinking and flattening before my very eyes. My primary source of entertainment was “the computer room,” where my brother and I would sit at a bulky Mac monitor made of periwinkle and clear plastic and while away the hours with CD-ROMS and the internet. I’d click on low-resolution pictures of Britney Spears, zooming in until I was staring at one giant pixel, one of hundreds of sharp squares comprising an image of a human being. This was all the future, I kept being told, and “very exciting.” But then, why did it look and feel so cold?

Perhaps for this reason, my brother and I latched onto Wallace and Gromit quickly—in contrast to all of our digital fare, their world was texturally intoxicating. We swiftly adopted the duo’s language: small gestures, eyerolls, Wallace’s precise way of saying “cheese,” the way he speaks the word with his whole being, like the high whizz of an untied balloon. If you squint while watching A Grand Day Out, you can see Park’s actual fingerprints—divots in places where he maneuvered his characters into expressivity, light suggestions of human intervention when Gromit raises his ears, or when Wallace stretches his mouth to say “Wensleydale”, his favorite cheese. 

The 24 minute film hinges on a quandary: Wallace and Gromit can’t decide where to vacation (easy to see why with a house as lovely as theirs), poring through the aforementioned magazines in search of an answer. The task is so trying, in fact, they opt to break for snacks. 

Wallace shuffles into the kitchen and opens a cabinet stocked to the brim with crinkled-paper cracker sleeves, tumbling a few golden squares onto a plate. But what are crackers without their logical complement? Wallace swings open the refrigerator door in search of cheese. The only thing that remains is a toothpick sign reading “cheddar cheese” which lays across an empty plate—a flag on a vacant planet. “No Cheese, Gromit!” he cries.

Wallace returns to the living room, and Gromit eyes him as he chokes one hunk down, the lump traveling through his neck like a mouse through a snake. Terrible. Awful. Dry as dust. Gromit wrinkles his nose. The crackers have no purpose, they are but naked starch tiles. 

Suddenly, Wallace is struck by a brilliant idea:

“That’s it, Gromit! Cheese! We’ll go somewhere where there’s cheese!”

Gromit narrows his eyes as he so often does at Wallace’s odd whims, and they ponder just where this palatable place could be. The answer comes to them in an instant, and it’s not the corner store. They turn towards the window together, their heads backlit by an illuminated paper sky. 

The question of Where to Go is answered: Wallace and Gromit will take their holiday on the moon, where they will lay out a picnic blanket and slice celestial slivers on to crackers, making sure to take plenty home for the fridge, because, as Wallace says, “everyone knows the moon’s made of cheese.”

Outer Space as a place, a setting, a concept, is so glorious partially for its unknowability. We can only imagine what’s happening out there. Even scientists, with all of their tools, are just guessing. They have more words, but they’re storytellers, too—who’s to say what’s going on lightyears away? Maybe it is chrome and arched white plastic, Cinnabon hair, vengeful robots, aliens skulking around spaceships and men with pointy ears. It could all be true, somewhere out there; we don’t actually know what’s on the other end of the universe, what creatures exist in galaxies beyond our reach. 

This is what makes Wallace and Gromit’s take on space travel so revolutionary: to go to the moon, outer space, a place of infinite interest and possibilities, with the simplest goal in mind: to eat some cheese. 

So Wallace and Gromit build a spaceship in their dank basement, a dungeon-like crush of stones and rainwater, where they cook up a beautiful monster of a ship, the blueprints akin to a child’s fantasy of space: a lemon-shaped craft with fin-like attachments, with Wallace and Gromit drawn inside. The rocket is neither silver, nor gray, nor white—the thing is a show-stopping orange, a marriage of scrap metal and homey housewares. Truth be told, it’s less a rocket than a mobile living room: wallpapered, fit with a radio, recliners, a fruit bowl, and playing cards for Gromit. 

They blast off, their garden splitting in half, a gnome hitting the hull of the ship, cabbage patch quaking, everything in the ship vibrating with force. They hurtle towards their destination in their craft, which, set against the sky, looks about as flimsy as a Christmas ornament. They twiddle their thumbs as if on a train ride, bored by the journey and anxious to arrive. 

When Wallace and Gromit step out onto the moon, with a surface like frosted cake, they’re barely fazed. Whatever it means to travel to a different planet is entirely lost on them. It’s the cheese they want, and the cheese they will get. They lay out their blanket on the moon, earth a glowing dot behind them. Wallace wields a butter knife and slices off a piece of the moon. They eat it. They take their time. And in the end, it’s just not as good as what they’ve got at home. 

The return trip is not without its complications. A moon-locked robot, a kind of proto-WALL-E, yearns to go skiing, and desperately attempts to climb on board with Wallace and Gromit; in Park’s version of space, even beings from other planets present no threat. They are deeply human, with comprehensible needs, once you give them a chance. 

Though Park would go on to make much smoother films, devoid of fingerprints and more narratively driven, I still favor the lumpy beauty of A Grand Day Out. It’s the story that understands the essence of Wallace and Gromit and why we watch them: their warm domestic life is their most enviable feature. Nothing could come close to the perfection of that introductory frame—the books and the travel guides, the furnishings and half-full teacups, the shared ritual of cheese and crackers under the light of a faraway dairy moon. When Wallace suggests they go where there’s cheese, it’s a code for something wonderful. Let’s go on an adventure, but let’s never stray too far from home, from what we love. 

It’s fun to imagine—we’ve been doing it forever. But in reality, space will always be mediated by technology or money. Promises of egalitarian exploration and observation, space for the people, are juxtaposed with images of the absurdist reality: Jeff Bezos, for example, charges up to 28 million dollars for a ticket off the planet, and manages to denigrate the journey. Last trip, he was tossing Skittles into the mouth of a young Dutch man as they orbited the earth, laughing for a camera. Or take a more sobering vignette—during the last Blue Origin launch, William Shatner, of Star Trek Fame, went up with Bezos, expecting to be dazzled by the galaxy. Instead, he came back shattered: “There was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold . . . all I saw was death. I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness,” Shatner said. “It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth.” 

There’s some vague idea of outer space becoming habitable in the future. The movies show us metallic basecamps and thick-tired space buggies, air filtration, and sanitation units. One day, if we desecrate the earth enough, outer space could become our necessary plan B. 

It begs the question: even on an adventure, or an escape, hurtling through the darkest dark, what grounds you, keeps you feeling a sense of home? In the case of Wallace and Gromit, that grounding force is each other—the life they’ve created, the cheese they love. When going far from home, or even not so far, what is it that keeps us from losing ourselves and our sense of things? A picture in a wallet? A favorite sweater? A letter from the one you love?

Claymation maintains whatever magical thinking we may have conjured when we first glanced up at the sky, or perhaps saw it reflected in a pool or a puddle, its contours wobbly and indefinite, an abstract idea, a rorschach. What if the moon is made of cheese? What if we could wear our favorite sweater on its surface, and bring all our friends along for the journey? What a dream it is to look up at the sky and imagine a man and a dog picnicking on the moon. A couple hours up there, only to float back down here. A world in which grocery runs turn galactic, the quotidian is full of invention, and the moon itself is open to us—earthen, touchable, malleable as clay.