Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit
directed by Steve Box & Nick Park
(Dreamworks, 2005)

Over the years, England has given the world some of its finest actors: Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Anthony Hopkins, to name a few. But none of them has had to overcome the disadvantage borne by Britain's latest emotive export, Gromit.

Gromit, one half of the animated team of Wallace & Gromit, not only can't talk -- he can't even bark. Or lip synch. The poor pooch has no mouth. And yet in his own quiet way, he's come to speak for a whole generation, or possibly several generations. It seems kids love him as much as grownups do, or vice versa.

Gromit, the creation of English animator Nick Park, got his start in the Oscar-nominated short film A Grand Day Out, in which he and his "master," the working-class inventor Wallace, take a trip to the moon so Wallace can indulge himself in his favorite pastime, consuming large quantities of cheese. Their next two efforts, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, both won Oscars for best animated short film.

And now we have Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wallace & Gromit's first feature-length film, which also has been nominated for an Academy Award (Best Animated Feature Film).

As it's nearly three times as long as any of its predecessors, Were-Rabbit has a somewhat more involved plot.

This time around, Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis) and Gromit are the brains and brawn behind Anti-Pesto, a "safe, sane and humane" pest-removal outfit whose services couldn't be more in need. The village is just four days away from its Giant Vegetable Competition, held annually without fail at Tottington Hall, home of Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter, at her Merchant-Ivory best) for the past five centuries.

All systems seem to be go until the ever-ingenious Wallace tries to rid his captured bunnies of their veggie obsession by using his latest invention, the Mind Manipulation-O-Matic -- a machine designed to brainwash bunnies, or its inventor, for the better.

But shortly afterward, the village -- and the vicar in particular -- is visited by what the good reverend (Nicholas Smith) can only describe as a were-rabbit, with "teeth the size of ax blades, and ears like terrible tombstones."

Soon the whole town is caught up in a contest of wills over who'll rid the village of the menace: the ever-inventive Wallace, who's already failed once to save the village veggies, or Tottington's would-be lover, Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes, at his James Mason foppiest), an upperclass twit whose dog definitely has a mouth -- and teeth, lots of them -- and whose sole solution to pest problems is to shoot 'em dead.

Complicating the scenario is the fact that Lady Tottington has developed -- and demonstrated -- a fondness for Mr. Wallace that transcends their class differences.

The result is a film that's part Werewolf of London, part The Fly and part King Kong, with peasant riots unlike anything seen since Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Not stopping there, however, writer-director Park takes a pot shot at Harry Potter himself in the opening montage, and it may be my imagination, but the vicar bears a striking resemblance to either Ernest Thesiger, who as Dr. Pretorius helped create the Bride of Frankenstein, or to Ian McKellen in the biopic Gods & Monsters, portraying James Whale, who directed Bride of Frankenstein.

Not that Were-Rabbit would need all these cross-references or plot complications to make it fun. The animation is so good it amuses you no matter what the characters are up to, and the backgrounds are so intricate you'll probably want to hit freeze-frame on occasion to get a better look at what's behind this masterpiece. Wallace's bookshelf is especially revealing: the cheese-aholic's collection includes such literary masterpieces as Fromage to Eternity and East of Edam.

Then of course, there's Park's usual collection of Rube Goldberg inventions, the best of which this time is the launch gear that gets Wallace and Gromit out of bed, fully caffeinated and into their Anti-Pesto van in seconds. Not far behind is the dancing stuffed were-rabbit atop the van itself. That you'll have to see -- and hear -- to believe. And at long last, Park reveals where those rampaging peasants always seem to find just the right "angry mob" supplies.

Ultimately, however, what makes Were-Rabbit work is what's made Wallace & Gromit films work for the past 15 years: Mr. Expressive, Gromit himself. Keep your eye on that pup's eyes. Knighted or not, the dog can act.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

29 September 2007

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