A promise, from me to you:
If Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit does not win this year's Oscar for best animated feature, I will kick a penguin.
Academy voters, you do not want that. Or do you? Although feature-length animation for the family remains one of the few surefire bets left in Hollywood, the past year has been relatively lacking on that front. Robots, all gear gags. Madagascar, no heart (but loved the penguins). Even the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki returned with a minor curiosity, Howl's Moving Castle.
I have not seen Disney's upcoming Chicken Little but assuming it's roughly as sophisticated as the digital animation Disney cranks out without the aid of Pixar, Wallace & Gromit (and its soon-to-be-very-happy studio, DreamWorks) should be a lock. It had me at gnome - or rather, I was charmed and utterly dazzled with the first garden gnome in the film who doubled as a security sensor, sending out a red Mission: Impossible beam as a trip wire to protect crops from pop-eyed bunny larceny.
And those crops - clay.
Everything, of course, in a Wallace & Gromit production is animated with sculpted clay. Even the liquid. Even the were-rabbit, who looks a bit like Gary
Busey. Even the moon he stalks the village's crops by. For the uninitiated, and there are a few left: Wallace & Gromit are actually Plasticine, and the very British creations of animator Nick Park. And in 16 years, Wallace & Gromit have starred in only three shorts - two of which already landed Academy Awards.
It's basically a master and his dog act inverted. Wallace, the human, invents Rube Goldberg-ish contraptions choked with pulleys and levers, speaks with a sweet dopey sigh, wears sweaters, adores cheese (his bookshelf includes Fromage to Eternity), and gets into trouble. He gets out of it, often not even noticing the trouble, thanks to fretful pooch Gromit, who walks on two legs and keeps Wallace on a strict diet and has the most expressive eyebrows since Jack Nicholson.
Nothing is quite so offensive or scary in Wallace &Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit as, say, a man kicking a penguin - the picture is a mild G - but the sensibility is definitely nuanced and clever, full of references to horror icons like King Kong and Mr. Hyde (pitched broadly enough to charm everyone), and if you do bring children along, you may find yourself explaining a proliferation of fuzzy wabbits.
"They're breeding like ... "
That's Wallace, of course. His voice, as always, is by actor Peter Sallis. Gromit, whose brow alone has more life than the entire cast of Into the Blue, prefers silence.
So, no: Eddie Murphy doesn't make a better Wallace, although capitulating a bit to a studio's need to market celebrity voices, Park does get Helena Bonham Carter (fresh from her stint as the Corpse Bride) to provide the dotty chirp of Lady Tottington, a woman with a gargantuan carrot for a hairdo; and Ralph Fiennes, who tends not to smile let alone goof, pulls out his inner Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as Quartermaine, a pompous hunter of vermin who looks a lot like a very prissy yam.
Even more than those golden throats, however, the question that worried Wallace & Gromit groupies was whether a pair who worked swimmingly as a short subject would feel kind of long-winded when stretched (every pun intended) to feature-length.
The brief answer, not a bit.
Remember, even the old slapstick English Ealing comedies and Hammer horror pictures that Park has an obvious fondness for, and pays affectionate tribute to, barely creeped at times beyond 75 minutes. And here is a streamlined 85 minutes of chases and gags and puns that cruise by but always retain a slightly dazed, idiosyncratic touch - literally: Park is known for insisting his monastic animators, working at a glacial pace (for more than five years) and manipulating the characters one frame at a time, leave actual fingerprints on each of their shots.
The difference? Real soul.
Somehow it comes through.
The story is almost incidental, but jolly good fun: It's set in a rural England teeming with googly-eyed representatives of every British type ever committed to film - they trill and twee and are forever "putting a kettle on." Wallace, who runs an extermination business, invents the Bun-Vac, a humane way of ridding gardens of crop-eating rabbits. But it goes horribly wrong, and the introduction of the were-rabbit is an opportunity for Park to pull out those great old horror-movie standbys, who say with melodramatic flourish:
"Tampering with nature! Forcing vegetables to swell to unnatural size! We have wrought a terrible judgment on ourselves!"
Park, as with his first feature Chicken Run (a non-W&G project), drops in a quiet vegetarian and animal-abuse angle, but his mark is not a message or moral - which is rare to animation. If a Tim Burton film like The Corpse Bride resembles a Burton work by sake of design, a Park film is unique for its sympathy for the beasts, and for how that high-mindedness never intrudes on how timeless Wallace & Gromit feel. It boils down to a chase, a silly gag, and a bunch of bunnies absurdly floating in space, wondering just how they got there.
Jolly good show.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org