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A film review of WALLACE AND GROMIT IN CURSE OF THE WERE RABBIT by Camus
 
"It's got to be such an inspiring idea to me, you know,
that they have to sustain me for five years..."
Co-director, Nick Park

 

Five years. Think of that in days and making an eighty-five minute movie over that time (that's over twenty days spent per screen minute). Aieee. Three years of getting the script absolutely the best it can be – time never, ever wasted – and pre-production preparation. Two years of thirty animators thumbing clay (or something that looks like clay but is probably as related to plasticine as petrol is to rocket fuel). If you are considering spending a tenth of your working life on a single project, you'd better have a damn good script and some major talent behind the camera. Tick, VG. All in place.

Park has dispelled two niggling doubts with his rather inspired Curse of the Were Rabbit. The first is: can Wallace and Gromit sustain an eighty-five minute feature (absolutely, yes – even though it's Gromit's movie through and through) and secondly can anyone work with Dreamworks' Jeffrey Katzenberg and stop their movie becoming a generic tossed salad designed to 'homage' recent Hollywood and leave story sense and characters to care for out of the mix? Well, aside from a relatively painless invasion of the CG penguins from Madagascar (a short before the feature) there are scant clues that Katzenberg's paws have soiled the clay. This is Nick Park. This is Aardman animation and this is great, great fun.

In the first Wallace and Gromit short (A Grand Day Out) Nick Park's animation is significantly much cruder and the story surreal to the nth degree. Just in case there's a sentient being on the planet who hasn't seen it, it ends with an aggressive stand up cooker robot skiing on the moon – say what? So the 'world' of Wallace and Gromit (almost now a single five syllable word) is established. Man and dog live in this oddly old fashioned 50s Britain. Wallace is an inventor with a Heath Robinson bent. His greatest asset is his extraordinarily resourceful, mouthless mutt, Gromit. With only his eyes and eyebrows, Gromit can communicate a vast breadth of emotion. This is just as well as he never opens his mouth (having no mouth to open seems to be the principal reason). Their specific fantasy world is further entrenched with the introduction of the penguin bank robber in The Wrong Trousers and the demon robot dog in A Close Shave. The film-makers take the pair into a slightly different world in their movie. All the animation and art direction is spot on but in order to create the eponymous were rabbit, a bit of personality transference has to take place (not strictly a Wallace and Gromit 'thing' despite the former's penchant for invention). I guess the response to my little criticism is that they have added to W & G's world... Fair enough. That 'out of place' aspect is what stopped me cold watching the new live action Scooby Doo – these weird supernatural creatures were really supernatural which went against the grain of the original Scooby-Doo adventures.

However, this is not only a minor quibble, it's the only one. Were Rabbit is inventive, imaginative, accessible to all ages and above all moving in a way that clay should not be. It is also profoundly British despite the dollar budget Were there no British backers for what had to have 'hit' written all over it? Depressing. The set up is simple. Wallace and Gromit are the Anti-Pesto team, the ones to call when you want marauding pests humanely dealt with. Their way of despatching the troublesome critters is to capture them and then politely home them. No animal could possibly be 'put to sleep' in Wallace and Gromit's world. Gromit seems weary of the surfeit of rabbits until Wallace has a brainwave via his all too inventive mind. He plans to transfer his thoughts ("No veggies!") to the rabbits in his care hoping that they won't go hopping away to trouble the townsfolk all of whom are working hard to win the Giant Vegetable competition. It's run by the local gentry, "Call me Totty!", the second of Wallace's romantic entanglements. If you remember, the first (in A Close Shave) was struck down by her allergic reaction to cheese, even Wensleydale.

So begins the hunt for the huge and vegetably destructive 'were rabbit'. Gromit plays Sherlock and through a very simple but elegant clue, he finds out the identity of the marauding beast. It's a testament to directors Nick Park and Steve Box's skill that at exactly the moment the penny drops in Gromit's (and my) mind, my son leaned over and said "Does that mean that 'x' is the were rabbit?" I dough my cap to Box and Park. That's great storytelling. It struck me admiring Gromit's ineffably expressive eyebrows that this is the first movie I have ever seen that hinges on the central performance of a dog (wait, there's more), a dog made of plasticine, a dog with no mouth and a dog with no distinguishing features whatsoever...except for a love of his master and a sense so common, he'd never make it in politics. Gromit is the star of this movie and for my money the biggest laugh out loud moment was a simple Oliver Hardyesque look to camera and a raised eyebrow. You have to love that dog. Hey, I laughed out loud (as did others) in a cinema. What is to become of me?

Technically, the film is a marvel. The miniature sets are seeped in detail and drip atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed the lighting (now how many movies can you say that about or would want to single it out?) but it really is wonderfully and richly shot. The action sequences are as accomplished as anything coming from across the pond (and dare I say more comprehensible given the latter are cut so fiendishly quickly now, sense is easily sacrificed). Like Pixar, the only movie company comparable with Aardman, the ideas have a high strike rate and you never really know how something is going to happen (you may know what in the sense that W & G have to end up heroes). There's a moment when a rabbit is about to be shot, is sucked underground but it thinks it has been shot and is now descending to heaven. Idea for idea, it's one of the best in a movie dense with such gems. Ironic too that the images of the functioning 'Bun Vac' (or rabbit suction device) were achieved by artful computer generated plasticine bunnies. According to Park there was a staff animator who so resisted the CG answer, he tried to animate the thirty floating in heaven bunnies himself and nearly killed himself with the effort... But it made my day hearing that story.

As far as the voice talent is concerned, I'm reminded of Ewan MacGregor's advice to his co-star Ricky Gervais when they performed for the CG animated Valiant. Gervais was nervous he wasn't delivering. In the loo at a break, MacGregor simply said "When you sound like a complete c***, you're doing it right." Gervais was fine after such solid advice. Well, in Were Rabbit, unless I was told whose voices I was listening to, I wouldn't have twigged, so far are their performances from their own voices. Briefly stepping back into gentrified roles is Helena Bonham-Carter as Lady Tottington. She's over the top but correctly so but not quite as over the top as Ralph Fiennes (again, correctly so) as the voice of the dastardly hunter Victor Quartermaine. It's so cosy and snug a fit (unlike Quartermaine's toupée) that the most famous voice talent of the cast often gets overlooked. Peter Sallis is so unutterably Wallace (unutterably in the sense that no one else could possible utter Wallace's lines) that if he ever passes away, Wallace may well be laid to rest with him. But Sallis is a pro and his performance here as assured as it always was. You have to remember, Sallis is one of the only aspects of Wallace that grounds him, makes him likeable. He is almost always upstaged by Gromit. Let's face it, Olivier, Brando and Pacino would be upstaged by Gromit. Simultaneously.

As ever, the eclectic and full music score faithfully serves the action, the cue 'Dogfight' on the album being the stand out action piece. This time it's Julian Nott, not Chicken Run's Harry Gregson-Smith, who gets top baton (with help from Harry's brother Rupert). Musically, the score quotes many styles and in some instances (Cape Fear anyone?) it hits an homage note for note but (as in the movie references which abound in the visuals) they do not stop the movie in its tracks and announce to the audience "Hey, did you spot it? You didn't? Don't worry, this is a Katzenberg movie, there'll be another one along in a few seconds." The references are woven in to the fabric of the movie, stitch for stitch. That said, this movie could only have been made by a northener (Park was born in Preston) and someone of my age having been so entranced with the original (and best) Thunderbirds TV show.

At the climax of the movie, it's not a spoiler to say that man and dog are reunited happily. It is surprising to me that it choked me up! OK, let's examine this. One lump of dog shaped clay jumps up into the arms of a lump of man shaped clay... One big lump and I'm deeply moved (with a lump of my own, location; throat)? As one of the IMDB contributors quite rightly mentioned that for this to happen, there is some 'seriously accomplished storytelling' at work. Gromit, all through the movie has been mildly disapproving of his master but we know they both care for each other deeply. When a tear is summoned as Wallace lays, apparently dead, (my God, I can feel echoes of the emotion behind my eyes right now) it breaks your heart.

If you know Wallace and Gromit, you know what you're in for. Sit back and enjoy what, in any other hands, would be a retro fifties comedy more in keeping with Carry Ons than any other 'type' of British movie. But with animation, the style is the thing and its charms fuse with the wit and you end up with warmth and big cheesy grins. Cracking stuff. Oh, and there was applause! Something is definitely working if there is applause...

Wallace and Gromit in Curse of the Were Rabbit

UK 2005
85 mins
directors
Steve Box
Nick Park
producers
Claire Jennings
Peter Lord
Nick Park
Carla Shelley
Davis Sproxton
screenplay
Bob Baker
Steve Box
Mark Burton
cinematography
Tristan Oliver
Dave Alex Riddett
editors
David McCormick
Gregory Perler
music
Julian Nott
production design
Phil Lewis
starring
Peter Sallis
Ralph Fiennes
Helena Bonham-Carter
Peter Kay
Nicholas Smith
Liz Smith
John Thomson
review posted
18 October 2005