a review by Peter Suderman
Directors – Nick Park and Steve Box
Writers – Steve Box, Nick Park, Mark Burton and Bob Baker
Directors of photography – Dave Alex Riddett and Tristan Oliver
Editors – David McCormick and Gregory Perler
Music – Julian Nott
Supervising animators – Loyd Price
Producers – Claire Jennings, Carla Shelley, Peter Lord, David Sproxton and Nick . Park
DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Features. 85 minutes. Rated G.
STARRING THE VOICES OF: Peter Sallis (Wallace), Ralph Fiennes (Victor Quartermaine), Helena Bonham Carter (Lady Campanula Tottington), Peter Kay (P. C. Mackintosh), Nicholas Smith (the Rev. Clement Hedges) and Liz Smith (Mrs. Mulch)
Accustomed as we are to the slick, ultra-detailed worlds afforded by computer generated animation in everything from the Shrek films to the recent Star Wars prequels, the idea of a movie hand-molded entirely from clay seems suspiciously old fashioned. But scene after scene, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit, the newest film from British clay wizards Aardman, proves that millions of dollars worth of technological flash are no match for clever storytelling and lovingly crafted characters. Part horror homage, part absurdist comedy, and all giddy fun, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a loving tribute to the virtues of devotion and creativity.
Armies of CGI tech-heads may be at work this very moment attempting to code new ways to generate ever more realistic facial pores and frazzled hair, but few will create anything as endearing as the title characters directors Nick Park and Steve Box have molded out of simple lumps of clay. Wallace, a bald, scraggle-toothed English inventor, runs a pest-control service with the help of his loyal dog Gromit who, in classic comedic style, is constantly saving his master from his own hapless errors. The gag is an old one, but Park and Box play it with astounding wit and ingenuity.
Like the best Pixar films, Wallace & Gromit is bursting with invention. From the elaborate, Rube Goldberg style devices that shuttle the heroes through their outrageously complicated daily routines to the rooftop garden overgrown with giant vegetables, the movie is a mad scientist’s laboratory of delightful, imaginative marvels. That each was painstakingly pieced together out of clay only makes it more miraculous.
The film’s lumpy, earth-toned, clay world makes a perfect venue for its dry, off-kilter humor. Cleverly masked adult innuendos (“Kiss my artichoke”) sit comfortably beside gags that use rabbit suction machines (don’t ask) and elaborate bits of visual humor. It’s distinctly British, with drab one liners and surrealist imagery that recall both Monty Python and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
As the title suggests, the film is structured in the mold of classic horror, with a vicious monster wreaking havoc on a small, English village. “Vicious,” though, is a relative term, for the movie is imbued with a surpassing gentle spirit; in this case, the “monster” is an enormous fuzzy bunny whose presence threatens the town’s giant vegetable competition. Wallace and Gromit, as the town’s pest control service, are called in by the regal Lady Tottington to rid the village of the vegetable ravaging menace, but snooty, conniving aristocrat Victor Quartermaine has other ideas.
Park and Box have dotted their film with sly nods to horror and adventure greats. From Jurassic Park to Jaws and King Kong, the movie is clearly aware of its predecessors, and in many ways it bests much of the exploitative drivel that slithers out from under Halloween floorboards each year substituting gross-outs for entertainment. With nary a scene that wouldn’t be appropriate for a kindergartener, Wallace & Gromit hits all the horror movie highlights: the raving priest who warns his fellow villagers after an initial encounter, the slow reveal of the beast, the climactic standoff with a mob of angry townspeople. Mixing satire with reverence, it gently prods its origins while playing strictly by genre rules.
As with all good genre storytelling, the film comes alive because of its characters. Despite being constructed of little more than hunks of Play-Doh, each of the players has a firmly established personality. Wallace is a reserved, slightly naïve Brit who gets nervous in the presence of the flighty Lady Tottington, while Quartermaine is a preening sleazeball with an Elvis-like pompadour and a brutish, gator-toothed mutt every bit as nasty as Gromit is nice. They may be simple clay figures, but they’re all deeply real, emanating life from within their putty cores.
Most endearing is pet pooch Gromit, an unwaveringly loyal dog that, even without a mouth, is one of the most expressive animals ever brought to the screen. With a simple lift of his eyes or furrowing of his brow, his expressive range topples that of many human actors, revealing the sort of genuine devotion and kindness rarely seen on the big screen. “Man’s best friend” doesn’t even begin to explain it.
Gromit’s relationship to Wallace is one of pure servitude, and yet he neither complains nor falters. Whether Wallace is making breakfast or catching vegetable eating pests, Gromit is there to silently pick up the inevitable mess left in his wake. Without moralizing or speechifying (a somewhat difficult task given that he lacks a mouth), Gromit is a perfect picture of humility.
Eschewing the staid pop-culture references and raunchy bodily function jokes that enamor so much family fare, Wallace & Gromit instead opts to be smart and sweet-natured. With so much kid-friendly entertainment based around bratty, hyperactive pseudo-adolescents, it’s refreshing to see a film that manages to be sharp and funny but not piercing, all while praising loyalty and humility in the character of a lovable pooch. Good dog, indeed.