3 stars (out of four)
Most of us come from common clay. Wallace & Gromit do not. The jolly inventor with the sausage-shaped smile and his patient, silent yet wondrously expressive dog are the stuff of uncommon clay, the synthetic material known as Plasticine, of which two of modern cinema's loveliest comic creations are molded.
"Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" is the first feature-length showcase for these indelible characters, and it's a good one. For 40 minutes or so it's really good, in fact, as lovely and daft as the stop-motion animated W&G shorts that preceded it, beginning with "A Grand Day Out" (1989). While the new film, an $80 million co-production of DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Features, piles on too many action climaxes in its second half, the essential spirit and buoyancy of the characters remains intact.
Those who adore the Wallace & Gromit shorts beyond all human and animated reasonI am one of themtend to flail around in a sea of adjectives explaining why. Charm is an elusive quality, borrowing as it does from so many others: Subtlety, felicity of expression, timing, understatement. Check, check, check and check. Wallace & Gromit has them all, and their ongoing middle-class saga may well constitute the greatest human/dog love story ever told.
"Curse of the Were-Rabbit" has been described by W&G creator Nick Park as "the world's first vegetarian horror movie," riffing on old Universal werewolf and Frankenstein movies. Park codirects with Steve Box, from a script written in collaboration with Mark Burton and Bob Baker. The story finds our heroes running a humane pest control business known as Anti-Pesto. Rabbits are the major problems in their village, modeled on Wigan, Lancashire, England, of the 1950s, with its row houses, lavishly cared-for vegetable gardens and rigid social order.
The annual Giant Vegetable Competition is hosted by Lady Tottington (voice by Helena Bonham Carter). Her smarmy ascot-sporting suitor, Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), would prefer to deal with the bunny problem via shotgun. "Totty," as a smitten Wallace calls her, will have none of that. "Hadn't we agreed?" she admonishes Victor. "No more thoughtless killing?"
To ease the rabbit problem, Wallace concocts his latest whatzit, a "mind-manipulation-a-matic," requiring him to subject a test rabbit to brain-waves encouraging the animal in non-vegetable thoughts. Not long afterward a large, marauding were-rabbit is tearing up everybody's patches. The finale, set at Tottington Manor during the veg fest, melds bits of "King Kong" with pieces of "Hell's Angels," as the evil Quartermaine squares off against the misunderstood beast, and Wallace engages with Victor's dog, Philip, in airborne biplane combat.
The Wallace & Gromit dynamic is that of the temperamentally and intellectually superior dog looking after his endearingly daft human partner, a mana nice manwhose inventions, designed to make life easier and better, bear constant vigilance. In "Curse of the Were-Rabbit," as in the brilliant short films, particularly "The Wrong Trousers" (1993), Wallace devotes his time to two obsessions: cheese, and the manufacture of ingenious yet easily misguided Rube Goldberg contraptions, designed to help a fellow get dressed in the morning, or to propel jam onto toast from a great distance.
When "Were-Rabbit" goes in for spectacle, it becomes less special. The action set-pieces, notably the dogfight, are exciting enough, but they're on the bombastic side. (The toy-train chase in "The Wrong Trousers," by contrast, is thrilling and hilarious and just the right size.) I liked "Curse of the Were-Rabbit" about as much as I liked Aardman's previous feature, "Chicken Run," which is a lot, but neither feature is quite up to the sparkle and inspiration of the shorts.
Some of the cheekier "Were-Rabbit" bitsthe local vicar, for example, is caught reading a magazine devoted to nun wrestlingwill likely sail over the heads of the youngest patrons. Anybody, on the other hand, can appreciate the quieter moments such as Gromit, justifiably nervous about the monster on the loose, pulling out his knitting in order to calm his nerves. How can a Plasticine character without a mouth end up being the most vividly realized screen character of the year? It's all in the eyes. It was that way in the silent era, and it's that way now.
Bonham Carter and Fiennes contribute fine, ripe vocal characterizations of upper-class twits, sympathetic and unsympathetic, respectively. The key vocal artist, however, remains Peter Sallis, provider of the voice and soul of Wallace since "A Grand Day Out." Now 84, Sallis' cheerily avuncular delivery is such a font of chin-up spirits, you know things can never go too far wrong. At his side, always, is a stalwart dog universal in his appealyet culturally specific enough to reassure you there'll always be an England.
'Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit'
Directed by Nick Park and Steve Box; screenplay by Box, Park, Mark Burton and Bob Baker; cinematography by Dave Alex Riddett and Tristan Oliver; animation supervised by Loyd Price; music by Julian Nott; edited by David McCormick and Gregory Perler; produced by Claire Jennings, Carla Shelley, Peter Lord, David Sproxton and Park. A DreamWorks Distribution LLC release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:25. MPAA rating: G.
Wallace - Peter Sallis (voice)
Victor Quartermaine - Ralph Fiennes (voice)
Lady Tottington - Helena Bonham Carter (voice)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun