After winning two Academy Awards in the short animated category, Wallace and Gromit’s feature film debut in THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT is, frankly, disappointing. It’s not as good as THE WRONG TROUSERS; it’s not as good as A CLOSE SHAVE. But at least it is good.
One suspects that DreamWorks (which has had blockbuster success with computer-generated animated films like SHREK and MADAGASCAR) held a heavier hand over this production than they did on CHICKEN RUN (the previous feature film collaboration between the American distributor and the British production company, Aardman Animations). The humor here seems slightly cruder and more blunt (lots of burbing, and vegetables strategically placed to align with human anatomy in suggestive ways), without as much of the quirky British sensibility that made the Wallace & Gromit short subjects so endearing.
Which is not to say it isn’t there; it simply appears in a lower ratio. Basically, the film feels a bit like a sequel wherein all the stuff that worked previously is stitched back together and hyped up even bigger than before. In this case, this means there are several fast-paced action scenes that play out quite well, but the plot and characterization suffer slightly in the effort to make the stop-motion subject matter exciting enough for the big screen.
This time out, the story puts stop-motion stars Wallace and Gromit in charge of their own pest control business (called “Anti Pesto”), a humane operation that captures rather than kills the ravenous rabbits that threaten the local village’s annual produce contest. (Curiously, Wallace and Gromit seemed to live in the city in their short subjects; no explanation is given for how their house wound up in the English countryside.) In an attempt to rehabilitate the rabbits, Wallace the inventor comes up with a cracking contraption that transfers his brainwaves into the creatures: since Wallace loves cheese and hates vegetables, this should put a stop to their ravenous rampages on the would-be prize-winning melons, etc.
Of course, the contraption goes awry, creating the titular monster. The film finally gets going during a nighttime chase with Gromit the dog behind the wheel of the Anti-Pesto van, trying to track the beast, which is glimpsed only in shadows. The rest of the story throws in an obnoxious villain (voiced by Fiennes) and his dog (no match for Preston in A CLOSE SHAVE), a love story (likewise, no match for the one in A CLOSE SHAVE), a bunch of cute rabbits (not as cute as the sheep in A CLOSE SHAVE), and a sort of flying sequence (again, not as good as the one in A CLOSE SHAVE, but at least it’s different enough to stand on its own). There is also a fairly predictable (it’s given away in the trailer) but well-handled twist regarding the identity of the were-rabbit, and the story comes to a reasonably splendid climax when the big-sized bunny makes like King Kong and climbs a mansion with the screaming leading lady tucked under his arm — a nice homage to the 1933 classic that set the standard for stop-motion monster effects.
Both THE WRONG TROUSERS and A CLOSE SHAVE work so well because they are Hitchcock-style pastiches played straight (well, about as straight as a stop-motion film about a daffy inventor and his anthropomorphic dog can be). Those films are not only short; they are also tightly structured, with editing and camera angles as carefully laid out as in any serious live-action film, and the humor comes not so much from the verbal jokes and visual sight gags as from the absurdity of applying a deadpan tone to the ridiculous situation. For example, there is nothing overtly funny about Feathers McGraw, the jewel thief in WRONG TROUSERS; the joke is watching this little black penguin go about his work as a master criminal (simply seeing sweat drip from his brow during a tense robbery sequence was enough to generate laughter).
CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT, on the other hand, consciously spoofs old horror movies, but this source of inspiration never yields as much inspiration as the thriller-plots of the short subjects. Part of the problem is that the threats in the feature film are not very threatening: the human hunter is just a buffoon — a straw man set up to be knocked down — and the were-rabbit (when finally seen clearly) is kind of cute and cuddly. Like the rest of the new characters, they look a bit too goofy (it’s as if the cast of all the other short films and commercials produced by Aardman Animation had wandered onto the set of Wallace and Gromit by mistake). As a result, there is not much tension, even on a make-believe level; the film is, therefore, forced to rely instead on the jokes to hold viewer attention on a laugh-by-laugh basis.
Fortunately, the worst of the weakness is apparent early in the story, which feels padded and frantic at the same time — trying hard to grab audience attetenion with some manic antics while not really going anywhere fast. Once the were-rabbit plot fully emerges after the too-long set-up, the film hits its stride and runs reasonably smoothly from there, with several clever sight gags and some impressively staged stop-motion sequences that play to the strengths of director Nick Park and his famous creations.
Overall, the film is definitely worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan, and children will probably love it. But if you are hoping to convert some of your friends into fans of Wallace & Gromit, you would be well advised to show the the wonderful “Early Adventures” before sending them off to watch this feature-film debut. To be fair, one should add that the film’s closing credits are quite charming, thanks to dozens of bunnies who float up and into the frame in ones and twos — waving, twirling, dancing and rubbing noses.
In theatres, CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT was preceded by a CGI short subject “The Madagasgar Penguins in A Christmas Caper.” It seems like a great idea, because the penguins were easily the best thing in MADAGASCAR, and the short subject is actually an improvement on the feature film. Still, it is not quite as hysterical as it intends to be. The character voices and sight gags are quite amusing, but the character design and computer-generated animation are not particularly outstanding. Still, whatever the shortcomings of the CGI, the penguin characters are a great comedy team, and it’s good to see them shine in their own little movie.
WALLACE AND GROMIT: CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (2005). Directed by Nick Park & Steve Box. Written by Park & Box & Mark Burton & Bob Baker. Voices: Peter Sallis, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Peter Kay, Nicholas Smith, Liz Smith.
Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski