As quintessentially British in flavor as a wedge of Wensleydale, “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” reps the long-awaited feature outing for helmer Nick Park’s Plasticine pals, here up against a mutant rabbit. Although DreamWorks’ slightly coarsening fingerprints are visible in places, Park and co-helmer Steve Box stay faithful to the cozy core ingredients that made the clay duo’s kudo-reaping shorts and Park’s previous pic, “Chicken Run,” so well loved. “Curse” delivers a wholesome morsel, happily not too cheesy, that families will nibble on as a treat this autumn before making a real meal of it on ancillary.
First introduced in Park’s film school final project “A Grand Day Out” (which was nominated for an Oscar) and met again in the follow-up, “The Wrong Trousers” (which won an Oscar), Wallace (voiced by veteran thesp Peter Sallis) and Gromit (who never speaks) are one man and his dog, respectively.
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Living in a tidy terraced house in a suburban corner of Northern England that looks stranded somewhere in the 1940s, the two take trips to the moon (in “Out”) and confrontations with larcenous penguins (in “Trousers”) in their stride. An archetypal chalk-and-cheese double act, dairy product-loving Wallace and his smarter pooch Gromit (arguably as great a silent comedian as Jacques Tati or even Buster Keaton) have a passion for building Heath Robinson-style labor-saving devices.
Here, they’ve put their mechanical talents to work to build a security company called Anti-Pesto that patrols via remote control the backyard plots of their gardening-mad town. The annual giant vegetable competition is approaching, and Wallace and Gromit are kept busy humanely extracting foliage-fancying rabbits from the ground with their Bun-Vac 6000. (They keep the mischievous rabbits afterward as pets.)
When Wallace, with Gromit’s help, successfully fixes the lapine woes of pretty local toff Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter, on her second animated outing this year after “Corpse Bride”), winning her regard in the process, he attracts the jealous eye of scheming Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes). Quartermaine thinks shooting is a better method of pest control and wants Lady “Totty” for his bride.
Wallace ends up making more trouble for everyone when he hooks the Bun-Vac up to his latest invention, the Mind-O-Matic, hoping to brain-wash the rabbits into not wanting to eat vegetables at all. The experiment backfires, and soon a giant “were-rabbit” — seen in classic horror movie-style only in glimpses and shadow outline at first — starts ravaging the town’s gardens, turning the placid locals into an angry mob.
This first third somewhat reprises in bigger-budget form the same shticks from Park’s earlier shorts (such as the complicated contraptions that put Wallace in his trademark trousers and knitted vest for breakfast), but it helps bring viewers new to the duo up to speed with their world.
Similarly, pic’s grand finale at the vegetable fete, although featuring entirely original slapstick sight gags and quite excitingly assembled indeed, feels as if it’s sticking to the template laid down at the end of “Trousers,” which was refined further in “Chicken Run.”
Nevertheless, all the crisply paced stuff in between these bookends is consistently charming. Park and his usual screenwriting collaborator Bob Baker’s taste for poky, understated humor (Wallace’s typical reaction to catastrophe is to moan softly, “Oh, dear!”) meshes well with Mark Burton, co-scribe for DreamWorks’ “Madagascar,” who might be supposed to be responsible for pic’s broader comic touches, such as a tired gag that places a pair of melons right in front of Totty’s breasts for an “Austin Powers”-style double entendre.
Many of the knowing, pun-tastic “Shrek”-lite jokes lurking in the background here feel self-consciously aimed at tickling grownups’ funny bones, such as a row of books hiding Wallace’s secret cheese store with titles like “East of Edam” and “Grated Expectations.” Another big wink comes when a snatch of Art Garfunkel’s song “Bright Eyes,” the theme for rabbit-themed toon “Watership Down,” is heard on a car stereo. Overall, this feels a smidge less genuinely innocent than the original Aardman shorts.
Where “Curse” really shines, and also stays true to its roots, is in the animation department. Character design is faithful to the endearingly lumpy look, with thumbprints deliberately left unsmoothed, that’s become shingle Aardman and Park’s trademark. The sparing but wonderfully expressive work put into Gromit’s looks and gestures is simply bravura stuff. Merchandisers affiliated with the franchise should be delighted.
Animation team makes the painstaking job of individually moving characters in big crowd scenes look effortless, even with pic’s tens of rabbit extras. Deploying CGI in subtle but strategic way, latter warren of critters is seen spinning in the Bun-Vac, an effect done in an entirely different medium that is kept from looking too incongruous with the jerkier stop-motion animation by inserting tiny stutters in the movement.
Camerawork will likewise impress animation geeks with tricky low tracks through foliage in the action scenes. Lighting is cleverly deployed to make figures pop out more, even in night scenes. The rest of the production design underscores retro vibe while offering more pleasingly rough textures in hair and clothes that will prove particularly attractive to underage viewers, who will sit mesmerized through pic’s trim running time.
For the record, onscreen title of print caught was “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” which appeared in the wake of portraits of the two leading characters.