Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

121645__wallacegromit_lOn some level, Nick Park is obviously quite mad. At his award-winning Aardman Animations studio, he spends years at a time fiddling about with pieces of clay in order to tell stories about a poultry revolution or a lycanthropic bunny. Such men in less enlightened times were confined for their own safety. Fortunately, this is the 21st century and Park’s particular madness — or genius, take your pick — is on view once again in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The movie is the long-overdue feature debut of Park’s beloved creations Wallace, a cheese-obsessed inventor, and Gromit, his dog, who can only be described as “long-suffering.” Wallace considers himself quite clever, but his loyal servant Gromit silently begs to differ; they are the Claymation heirs of P.G. Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves.

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit finds Wallace and Gromit as “humane pest eliminators,” sucking up hungry rabbits with an elaborate vacuum and keeping them penned up in their basement. (The rabbits are well-fed; Gromit chops up dozens of carrots a day, scooping them down a chute into feeding bowls.) Their services are especially in demand due to the impending Veg Competition, for which various townspeople grow vegetables of unusual size, and would prefer not to see them nibbled by rabbits. The pair’s best client is Lady Tottington (voice of Helena Bonham Carter, in her second stop-motion effort after Corpse Bride), who admires their non-lethal methods. Their adversary is the buffoonish hunter Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes, having fun dropping his seriousness), who thinks there’s only one way to skin a rabbit.

Though circumstances too intricately bizarre to get into here (Park manages to wink at both A Clockwork Orange and The Fly, though), an experiment goes awry and one of the captured rabbits appears to have grown huge, moon-driven, and insatiably peckish. A were-rabbit, if you will. It’s a one-joke premise, but part of Nick Park’s madness/genius is the skill and detail with which he approaches it. As with his previous feature film Chicken Run, within five minutes you forget you’re watching Claymation, and within ten minutes you forget you’re watching animation at all. You’re sucked (as if by Wallace’s bunny vacuum) into a world of Rube Goldberg contraptions and mutely sardonic dogs — Park does wonders with Gromit, who has only his eyes to emote with — and unaccountably satisfying grace notes like the nocturnal howl of the Were-Rabbit, which sparks a rash of howling among the normal bunnies.

Any movie in which rabbits howl has my fast affection. And Park inserts any number of pop-culture references for his adult fans, not only the obvious Universal Monsters tributes but a brief nod to Watership Down (listen for “Bright Eyes,” that film’s Art Garfunkel ballad, on a car radio) and a possible dialogue hat-tip to either John Updike or Pink Floyd. Yet the film has its own antic pulse, and the animation obeys every cartoon-physics law of momentum and inertia. Even if the movie were utterly laughless, its blend of machine logic and surreal fantasy would fascinate the eye. Its very stop-motion roughness makes it friendlier and warmer than something like “A Christmas Caper,” the DreamWorks short starring the Madagascar penguins which played before Were-Rabbit in its theatrical run. The short is funny and slick but has an inescapable corporate feel — computer animation simply lacks the soul of something hand-drawn or hand-sculpted.

Nick Park will turn forty-seven in December. Selfishly, I sometimes find myself wishing he hadn’t picked a medium that takes so long, because it was half a decade between Chicken Run and Were-Rabbit, and he can’t have very many more five-years-in-the-making films left in him. It seems that he and Tim Burton are the only ones still interested in long-form stop-motion (Will Vinton has been silent lately, since being ousted from his own studio three years ago), while everyone else says “Why even bother? We can do that on a Mac.” But not everything can or should be done on a Mac, and Nick Park is like someone who’s still doing silent films or shooting in black and white, not for the money but for the love of doing it. God knows you have to love manipulating clay figures millimeter by millimeter for years at a time to do it for a living. I sure wouldn’t want to do it. But I want to see Nick Park keep doing it.

Explore posts in the same categories: animation, comedy, one of the year's best

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