Ah, Wallace and Gromit. Who doesn't get a little lift at the sound of those names? Who doesn't feel the edges of her mouth begin to tickle toward a smile, her heart grow warmer with images of the love between a (plasticine) man and his (plasticine) dog? Perhaps you're not among the considerable fan base surrounding this lovable couple -- the mild-mannered, hapless, toothy, bug-eyed, cheese-loving inventor and his beleaguered canine genius -- who issue from Aardman Animation at regular intervals. But you should be. This is delightful stuff.
Headed by Nick Park, Aardman is the inventive English studio that, in 2000, brought us the glorious Chicken Run. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a milestone, the first feature-length film starring the studio's signature characters. Any work of clay animation seems a miracle, requiring the painstaking labor of hand-positioning each frame, with 24 frames to every second of film. (I'll spare you the math: That's 1,440 frames a minute, 86,400 an hour, and approximately 130,000 for a 90-minute feature.) What's so incredible about Aardman's work is that, in addition to crafting hilarious and evocative figures that are a pleasure to watch (remember the chickens?), and in addition to animating them with extreme care, including tiny nuances of facial expression, Park inserts countless clever details: a drill made by a company called Botch, a diploma from Dogwarts, an electric blanket with the dial turned to "Cozy." The result is an experience rich in pleasure and surprise, one that easily stands up to multiple viewings.
Were-Rabbit opens in a vegetable patch with the cloak-and-dagger, spy-movie intrigue of attempted burglary and arrest. (Shadows, music, lasers, carrots, rabbits.) Asleep in their beds, Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis) and Gromit (silent -- he's a dog, remember) are awakened by their high-tech alarm system, in which the blaring eyes of a client's portrait alert them to the precise location of the crime. The dynamic duo are catapulted through a series of chutes and mechanized readying devices into their clothes and car, and, in no time, arrive on the scene, bagging the rabbit-culprit. The client is thrilled, and Wallace and Gromit are heroes. In a country town obsessed with growing oversized vegetables, they run Anti-Pesto, a humane pest-control service that catches rabbits rather than killing them.
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But where do the rabbits go? Into the basement, it turns out, and there are rather a lot of them, especially after Wallace and Gromit rabbit-vacuum the infested estate of Lady Campanula Tottington (voiced with adorable gravity by Helena Bonham Carter). The bunnies are breeding like rabbits, and instead of continuing to crowd the cages, Wallace wonders whether he might convince them not to eat "veg." "We can brainwash the bunnies!" he exclaims to Gromit in a fit of inventive euphoria. All it will take is a spell in the Mind-Manipulation-o-Matic! That simple piece of machinery has not yet been perfected, and Gromit sniffs trouble. Big trouble. Refer at this point to the title of the film.
Park is expert at creating fare that works on multiple levels. Were-Rabbit is replete with jokes that kill in the kiddy demographic -- for instance, the physical buffoonery of Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), a gun-obsessed hunter with a toupee. (Surely it's a testament to Aardman's creative cachet in England that Carter and Fiennes have starring roles.) It's also loaded with puns and pop-culture references that tickle adults. The film refers, at various times, to Frankenstein, King Kong, Harry Potter, and countless horror and action movies, including, of course, the werewolf genre. As Park and co-writer/director Steve Box must know, it's immense fun to sit in a theater filled with parents and children and to feel the mutual pleasure; neither party has to sacrifice a thing for the other.
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit isn't perfect. For one thing, it lacks the pure and rousing mission of Chicken Run. While we certainly root for Wallace and Gromit, the stakes aren't as high as they were for the chickens, who had to escape the coop or die a violent death in a pot-pie machine. (And Gromit, while noble and easy to adore, is no Ginger, the head chicken.) Also, Were-Rabbit ends weakly, with at least one major logical inconsistency and an untied loose end. The final 20 minutes consist of an extended chase, in which Park and Box pull out all of the action-movie stops, largely at the expense of sense. It's a good time, and it gets the pulse running, but the trajectory of action is so familiar as to be, finally, a little dull.
Still, Were-Rabbit is a treat. After all, how can you resist a film in which Ralph Fiennes delivers the scorcher, "You can say goodbye to your fluffy loverboy!" and the cluelessly single Wallace muses, "Love, Gromit. That's the biggest trap of all." Besides, the film frowns upon the killing of animals and even, actually, of vegetables. This is good, leafy fun.