After a 10-year absence, Aardman Animation's foundation characters, Wallace &
Gromit, have returned. The clay man and his dog, who were featured in three
animated shorts between 1989 and 1995, were left out in the cold when Nick Park
and his crew made their feature-length debut with 2000's acclaimed Chicken Run.
At the time, fans pondered Wallace & Gromit's fate, and Park was quick to
reassure them that the duo would be front-and-center for his next movie. Five
years later (it takes a long time to make these stop-motion films), Park has
kept his word. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit gives mainstream
audiences their first opportunity to meet the pliable characters with a cult
Wallace (voice of Peter Sallis) is a cheese-loving, chatty inventor living in a
small village in rural Great Britain. His lone companion is his impossibly
intelligent but always silent canine, Gromit. When The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
opens, these two have formed a PETA-friendly animal removal service called
"Anti-Pesto." When rabbits threaten garden vegetables, in come Wallace & Gromit
(armed with a giant vacuum cleaner) to save the day. It's their job to ensure
that everyone's carrots, squashes, peppers, and melons are ready for Lady
Tottington's (Helena Bonham-Carter) annual Giant Vegetable Contest. However,
just when Wallace and Gromit appear to have everything under control, there is a
new arrival - a fearsome brute of a creature with an appetite to match its
monstrous size. It is a were-rabbit, and no one is sure how to deal with it.
Wallace and Gromit devise a trap. Lady Tottington's would-be husband, Victor
Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), loads his gun with gold bullets (the only thing
that will kill a were-rabbit), and the rest of the townspeople arm themselves
with pitchforks and shovels from the Mob Supply Store.
British humor isn't like American humor. The emphasis is more on wit and
slapstick, and these qualities feature heavily in Wallace & Gromit. The film
offers a bounty of chuckles, but not many belly-laughs. That's its nature. In an
attempt to fit in with mainstream animated fare, Park has made a few minor
adjustments. An obvious one is the inclusion of double entendres. We have an
Austin Powers-inspired scene with a pair of melons and an amusing note ("May
contain nuts") on the side of a carefully positioned crate. But there are no
major compromises. Wallace & Gromit looks like an 85-minute version of Wallace &
Gromit, not the latest chapter of the Shrek saga.
In terms of plotting and character development, Wallace & Gromit could teach the
Disney folks a thing or two. The first 20 (or so) minutes provides a newcomer's
guide to the main characters, essentially re-creating moments from the earlier
shorts. These aren't necessarily bad things, but they're worth pointing out. The
tone, although darker than that of the average American animated movie, is still
perfectly suitable for family viewing. However, it's my guess that Wallace &
Gromit will develop a stronger following among older viewers (as opposed to
children). One wonders if kids will "get it."
For those who think 3-D digital animation looks too perfect, the style of
Wallace & Gromit offers a welcome change. CGI is used sparingly; most of this
movie was put together in an old-fashioned way - by moving the clay figurines
fractionally for each frame. It's the same process that was used in classics
like King Kong. Wallace & Gromit looks wonderful - a surreal fantasyland where
dogs may not speak, but outthink their human compatriots. Don't let the apparent
primitiveness of the animation fool you - Wallace & Gromit is as smooth and
pleasing to the eye as any computer generated imagery.
The latest trend in animated movies is to assemble a vocal cast comprised of
big-name stars. This can be a double-edged sword. While "star appeal" can boost
box-office receipts and elevate a movie's visibility, it can be distracting.
Park doesn't rely on prominent names. Wallace is, as always, voiced by Peter
Sallis. (Gromit doesn't speak.) Helena Bonham-Carter (in her second animated
outing of the year) and Ralph Fiennes are recognizable "guest stars" but, unless
you know about their participation beforehand, it's unlikely that you'll
recognize them. Fiennes in particular has disguised his voice.
Wallace & Gromit has a lot of good-natured fun lampooning conventions from old
horror movies (both those from Universal and Hammer). A scene where lightning
punctuates every pronouncement is one of many examples. There's also an extended
homage to King Kong that's apropos when you consider that both movies use the
same special effects technology. Wallace & Gromit is one of the better offerings
to be found in a year that has seen a drop-off in the quality of animated films.
Along with Howls Moving Castle and Corpse Bride (also filmed using stop-motion),
it's one of 2005's few non-live action feature capable of engaging all members
of the family.