It’s relatively rare for the stars of well-received short films to transfer to features very successfully, but Nick Park and Steve Box’s delightful stop-motion animation duo have certainly turned the trick in “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” The movie brings the goofy, cheese-loving inventor and his silently intelligent dog who together have won several Oscars to a tale that folds a couple of Hollywood standards–Laurel and Hardy-style slapstick and 1940s horror convention–into a quintessentially British concoction filled with English oddity. The mixture proves transcendentally silly fun.
The set-up puts Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis) and Gromit into an unlikely occupation, much as the ones Laurel and Hardy were often found in. They’re the owner-operators of Anti-Pesto, the “humane” pest (i.e., rabbit) removers in their garden-crazed little village, where the annual Giant Vegetable Competition is about to be held. After collecting the bunnies infesting the mansion of Lady Campanula Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter) and depositing them in the many cages they keep beneath their house–and catching the lady’s eye in the process–Wallace decides to attempt an experiment, much against Gromit’s better judgment. He tries to rid his many rabbits of the desire to eat veggies by hooking them up to his new invention, the Mind-O-Matic, but the operation–like Dr. Frankenstein’s–results in the emergence of a huge Were-Rabbit that begins trashing the local gardens, sending the vegetable-crazy locals into an absolute tizzy. Wallace believes that the beast is one of his pet rabbits gone wrong, but as usual Gromit’s suspicions turn out to be much more on target, leading to a big finale at the competition, where Camanula’s jealous (and avaricious) suitor Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes) takes aim at the Were-Rabbit not with a humane machine but with a rifle–loaded with a holden bullet, no less.
“Wallace & Gromit” is a lovely mixture of British befuddlement and American anarchy, uniting the frantic quality of silent farce with the charming eccentricity of the old Ealing comedies. It tips the hat to the shorts’ fans by revisiting a good deal of their humor, revolving around Wallace’s weird machines and the long-suffering Gromit’s efforts to clear up the messes his master makes. It also plays on the image of rustic Britain as existing in a sort of time warp, inhabited by characters who might have stepped out of a pre-Hollywood Hitchcock movie. (The over-the-top figure of Reverend Hedges, voiced by Nicholas Smith, is a special delight.) But it adds a good deal of the zip and pizzazz of modern American animation to the homely but rather beautiful results of the makers’ old-fashioned stop-motion techniques. (The rabbits are a charming combination of the two.) And it uses the cliches of horror movies, including not only “Frankenstein” and the obvious “Wolfman” but “King Kong” as well, to delicious effect. It’s also crammed with jibes and funny references directed more to parents than to the children who will be entranced by the sparkling images and eye-catching characters. Some are so esoteric that they’ll probably sail over the head even of most adults: how many viewers, for example, will be aware that the old LP titled “The Plants Suite” being played by one gardener to soothe his veggies is actually playing a snippet from Holst’s “Planets,” only one letter removed? Taken together, “Wallace & Gromit” boasts a surfeit of pleasures–visual and aural–sure to enchant toddlers, great-grandparents and everybody in between.
There are, as usual, a few weaknesses. Neither Lady Tottington nor Quartermaine is as funny as they might be, and the Were-Rabbit itself lacks charm. But when one has Wallace, Gromit, the great supporting cast, all those rabbits, the wonderfully accomplished animation and plenty of amusing dialogue, one can’t complain much. It took something like six years and uncounted man hours to make “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” and happily it was worth the time and effort.