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|Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
by David Cornelius
If you do not know Aardman Animation, all you need to know is this: they are to stop-motion animation what Pixar is to computer-made cartoons. If you do not know Wallace and Gromit, all you need to know is this: in the 1990s, the duo appeared in three short films, and all three rank among the best short films ever made.The characters - the eccentric cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his silent, intrepid dog Gromit - have finally returned with “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” a film that took five years to complete. Considering the mechanics of stop-motion (in which models are photographed one movement at a time, twenty-four shots making up one second of film), this wait is understandable for a feature. (Aardman’s previous feature, the phenomenal “Chicken Run,” was released in 2000.)
"Smashing film, Chuck!"
But Dave, you say, I just saw “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.” I know all about stop-motion and the mechanical wonders it creates. Ah, yes, but dear reader, I reply, what you saw in “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” was an exercise in empty imagery. With “Were-Rabbit,” Aardman proves why they compare to Pixar: it’s technical and artistic mastery combined with an emphasis on top notch storytelling. The two studios both succeed in all they do because they insist on placing story first. These are screenplays that would work even without the noteworthy animation, characters that win us over not because of how they look, but because of how they are created.
Of course, there’s something in the animation that gets the characters feeling so alive. Watch as directors Nick Park and Steve Box (and, of course, their animation crew) work to make these lumps of plasticene look like real, living beings. This is the mind-bogglingly complex stuff of classic animation, the way they let Gromit’s brow crease just so, the way they present Wallace’s giddy optimism, the way people and animals move, react, be. I’m reminded of the footage of Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, describing how best to animate a bear stretching his face. Like those artists before them, the good people at Aardman know how just the slightest turn of a pose can bring the inanimate to life.
One of the great, unsung things about Aardman’s films is how the human touch can work its way through to the audience. In so much animation, especially these days, the animator is an invisible being; we don’t think much about who programmed Mr. Incredible’s movements into the computer. But with Aardman’s stop-motion, you can see the fingerprints of the artist right there on Gromit’s face, on Wallace’s nose. It’s the sign of the filmmakers peeking through at us. And just as the works of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen left us overwhelmed by their magic, so too are we in awe of the magic on display here, in Wallace and Gromit’s world.
(This touch is so vital to the Aardman world that they even made sure to include the handmade look - fingerprints and all - to their CGI models, which were used to allow characters to briefly do what stop-motion cannot create. That I did not know computer animation was used until long after the movie ended is a testament to the filmmakers’ artistry.)
But, of course, we come back to the story. Without it, “Were-Rabbit” would merely be an impressive test reel, a showcase for great animation with nothing to keep our interest beyond the wow factor of the visuals. The script, a collaboration between Park, Box, Bob Baker, and Mark Burton, finds our lads in the middle of another of their schemes - this time, they’re rabbit exterminators (they call the company “Anti-Pesto”). The town’s busy preparing for the upcoming giant vegetable festival, meaning somebody has to protect everyone’s prize squashes.
But what to do with all those rabbits once they’ve been captured? Ah, that’s when Wallace gets one of his ideas: use the Mind Manipulation-O-Matic (“just a bit of harmless brain alteration, that’s all”) on the bunnies, convince them that they don’t want to eat veggies. But things go wrong indeed, and soon the neighborhood is being terrorized by a giant monster. Could it be… the Were-Rabbit?!
The sense of humor on display here is every bit as sharp as what we came to love in the original Wallace and Gromit shorts. The jokes are a variety pack, from the lowbrow to the intellectual, from the broad to the clever, from those eager to get children giggling to those that will have parents exchanging knowing smiles over their kids’ heads. Me, I’m still giggling over the parade of cheese-related parody books found on Wallace’s shelf. (“East of Edam,” anyone?)
But jokes alone are not what this series is about. Just as “The Wrong Trousers” wound up combining elements of adventure, mystery noir, and even hi-tech caper flicks to create something that both parodies and pays loving homage to all these genres (while at the same time working on an honest level of genuine action - and as a ripping comedy), “Were-Rabbit” plays off the familiar parts of classic gothic horror. The monster terrorizing a countryside brings to mind old Hammer chillers and other such fare. “Were-Rabbit” manages to work as a tribute and a spoof, finding comedy in the situation while not overly ridiculing its target. The result is a genre mix that allows the story to breathe, the comedy and the plot working together. My daughter thrilled to the adventure just as much as she laughed at the punchlines. This is a rare blend in family fare.
And yet, there is more. We come to Wallace and Gromit for a level of charm often missing in animation. Indeed, these are two characters so well-written that they win us over as if they were real people. There’s just something about Wallace’s clueless, cheery optimism and Gromit’s leery realism that gets us smiling the second they appear on screen. This is the ultimate test of a great animator - not the visuals, not the punchlines, but in developing a complete character. Watching a Wallace and Gromit film is like visiting an old friend.
Bringing Wallace to life in the vocal department is Peter Sallis, the veteran actor who’s played the role since his creation in 1989. It’s impossible to think of the character without Sallis, who brings to life Wallace’s distinctive dialogue. Just thinking of the inventor’s usual bag of expressions (“Cracking!” “Smashing!” “Chuck!” “Old chum!”) brings a massive grin to my face. (Come to think of it, I do believe I spent the entire hour and a half of the movie smiling like crazy.)
Complementing Sallis here is a bevy of British greats. Helena Bonham Carter woos our hero as Lady Campanula Tottington; Ralph Fiennes hams it up as the wicked Victor Quartermaine, the vile, spoiled soul out to marry Lady Tottington and defeat Wallace; Nicholas Hedges appears as the local vicar and provides the history of the Were-Rabbit. (He can only be killed with gold bullets. Why gold? Think about it.)The casting here is a sheer delight, the topper on a film that’s overflowing with wonderfulness. Aardman’s track record remains as flawless as Pixar’s, both studios continuing to be the go-to companies for awe-inspiring storytelling. “Were-Rabbit” is a welcome return of two of the most beloved characters in animation history - or a perfect introduction, for those who had missed them before. It is, indeed, quite cracking.
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originally posted: 10/12/05 17:44:49