Thursday, October 13, 2005

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit / ***½ (G)

Featuring the voices of:
Wallace: Peter Sallis
Lord Victor Quartermaine: Ralph Fiennes
Lady Tottington: Helena Bonham Carter
PC Mackintosh: Peter Kay
Mrs. Mulch: Liz Smith
Rev. Clement Hedges: Nicholas Smith

DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Features present a film directed by Nick Park and Steve Box. Written by Bob Baker, Mark Burton, Box and Park. Running time: 85 min. Rated G.

For some reason stop motion animation seems like one of the most magical of the film arts, which are so often characterized as magical to begin with (at least by film freaks such as myself). Many critics suggest the very nature of its illusion; essentially taking still photographs of clay puppets -- 24 frames for every second of run time -- with just the slightest of adjustment between each shot and putting them all together to form the illusion of movement; makes this animation format so fascinating to audiences. Another reason might be because it is so rarely seen, especially on the big screen. The time involved in creating a feature-length stop-motion animation is so great studios are not keen on the idea of investing in such an endeavor that may not capture an audience. In the characters of Wallace & Gromit, however, Aardman and DreamWorks have a property that has already proven its ability to please the masses with three previous Oscar nominated shorts, two of which won the coveted trophy.

Wallace & Gromit are… wacky absent-minded inventor and his trusty dog who saves his master from his own folly, respectively. In this their first feature-length adventure The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, we find master and dog the proprietors of a successful pest control company, wittily named Anti-Pesto, in a city obsessed with vegetables. A city with such a large obsession with large veggies it is undoubtedly going to have a large rabbit problem, but not until Anti-Pesto is commissioned to solve the problem humanely and Wallace (Peter Sallis) begins to experiment like a mad scientist with ways to psychologically motivate the bunnies off veggies does the town have a problem with a large rabbit. A were-rabbit, that craves veggies on a manic level when the moon is full, a result of Wallace’s inventions in a scene that recalls Victor Frankenstein’s monster creation and countless other schlock scientists from B horror movies.

Like creators Nick Park and Steve Box’s previous claymation feature Chicken Run, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit delights in referencing a pantheon of classic films. While Chicken Run ran the gamut of prisoner of war films, from Stalag 17 to The Great Escape; Were-Rabbit stays mainly within the tamer regions of the horror genre riffing on films like Jaws, The Hound of the Baskervilles, King Kong, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even legends like Jack the Ripper along with the direct references to Universal Studios classic monsters like Wolf Man. Even more so than making specific film references in the genre of classic monsters, Park and Box succeed in evoking the feel of those classic films in their miniature sets and environments. Every stand-by location, from the mad scientists’ lab and dungeon to the gothic mansion to the church and graveyard, is utilized, bringing back memories from childhood of Saturday afternoon horror marathons on the Boston local stations. The townspeople even form an angry mob by the end of the program with crazy coots calling for someone’s head and people brandishing pitchforks and torches.

One element of the classic horror monster film is a love triangle of sorts. Wallace plays the part of the tortured scientist, who is seen with sympathy by the rich philanthropist, in this case Lady Tottington (Helena Bohnam Carter, Corpse Bride). But of course the good Lady has other suitors, such as the hotheaded, big game hunter Lord Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes, The Constant Gardner), who pretends to be sincere when all he is after is her fortune. The fact that he is not entirely honest is made clear early on when his toupee is sucked up into Wallace’s humane rabbit vacuum. Another great laugh is nabbed when Quartermaine loses his hair a second time near the end of the story. His replacement cap successfully emasculates him.

The strength of the Wallace & Gromit vehicle lies in the mute Gromit. The dog acts as the audience’s eyes, the commentator on the events, and the true brains of the operation. It is Gromit who solves the mystery of the Were-Rabbit and Gromit who provides most of the film’s hard laughs. Gromit himself is caught up in the town’s obsession with veggies and plans to enter his own giant gourd in the annual contest that everyone is anticipating. He treats his prize veg with the care of a parent nursing a sick child, and when he is forced to choose between helping his friend Wallace and possibly sacrificing his gourd, the results are both touching and humorous.

It is often hard to express the joy certain pictures carry with them. I mean just look at the supporting character names: PC Macintosh? That’s just great! Wallace & Gromit capture something that has been lost in films for some time. It is in a format (claymation) from a simpler time in movies. It is a movie that is fun for what it is, not for what it is trying to be and it has a mind for other films made in the same fun nature. Wallace & Gromit themselves are uncomplicated characters that are just a joy to be with. With a solid shot at anther Oscar nod now that the Academy has added an animated feature category, hopefully this will not be the last time this duo finds their way onto the big screen. The animation may actually be a trick, but the results are certainly a treat.

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