Wallace and Gromit are ready for their close-up. And do we ever need them now.

Superstars of comic short films, this intrepid clay animation duo makes its much-anticipated move to features in the irresistible "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," puckishly characterized by creator Nick Park as "the first vegetarian horror movie ever."

In a movie culture in which creativity is often strangled in its cradle, it is both welcome and astonishing to see how successful Park's unlikely pairing of his own idiosyncratic sensibility with the most labor-intensive form of animation has become. "It was simply my own taste, the kind of film I wanted to see," the film's British co-writer and co-director said at Cannes about Wallace and Gromit's origins. "It always astonishes me how universal it's become."

Park's joining more than 15 years ago of a genially hapless inventor who's mad for cheese and his poker-faced know-it-all silent dog has led to three Oscar nominations and two statuettes for the dynamic duo. Park delayed the team's feature debut, which boasts Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes as voice talent, until he could come up with a plot worthy of their shenanigans, and he has.

Working with a trio of co-writers (Steve Box, who also co-directed, Bob Baker and Mark Burton, all previous collaborators), Park and company came up with the notion of a werewolf movie about rabbits who were ravenous for vegetables, not human flesh.

Those familiar with classics like "Frankenstein" and "The Wolf Man" will be charmed by how well the tropes of horror lend themselves to this kind of spoofing, and viewers of all sorts will be delighted with a film that puts a smile on your face and leaves it there for the duration.

Undaunted by previous mishaps, Wallace remains the epitome of Gyro Gearloose madcap inventing, coming up with wacky machines like the Mind-O-Matic and the Bun-Vac 6000. He still loves cheese (who else has books like "East of Edam" and "Fromage to Eternity" in his library shelves) and still gets despairing looks of polite disbelief from Gromit, the only dog whose hobby is knitting.

What is different is the pair's new business, a humane, cruelty-free way to rid gardens of invading rabbits that goes by the name of Anti-Pesto. It's an especially booming business in Wallace and Gromit's neck of the woods, a neighborhood obsessed with its Giant Vegetable Competition, in particular the impending 517th annual edition.

Then, when the moon is full, there appears on the scene a monstrous rabbit with the strength of 10, teeth the size of ax blades and ears like terrible tombstones. He lays waste to the neighborhood produce and enables the filmmakers, as Park explains, "to use typical horror movie characters like the skeptical policeman and a vicar who spouts all kinds of mumbo-jumbo about the beast within."

Especially energized by the disaster is Lady Tottington (Bonham Carter), bestower of the prized Golden Carrot, a local eco-toff who wants the beast humanely removed. Being something of a peerage groupie, Wallace (voiced as he has since the beginning by Peter Sallis) is only too eager to oblige. But standing in the way is milady's bloodthirsty suitor, Victor Quartermaine (Fiennes), who is determined to blow everything that moves to Kingdom Come.

The last thing you expect from a "Wallace & Gromit" film is crackling plot twists, but "Curse of the Were-Rabbit" boasts a few. It also has the kind of wonderful cartoon chases that were a beloved feature of the shorts as well as a riff on "King Kong" and a monster transformation sequence that is a treat.

Most of all, "Wallace & Gromit" retains the clever, one-of-a-kind sensibility that made its shorter predecessors so delightful. With every studio comedy looking for a formula for success, it's refreshing to find a heroically whimsical film that succeeds by following no formula known to dog or man.

Though "Wallace & Gromit" makes some use of computer-generated images for story elements like fog, its characters are still created frame by painstaking frame in the old-fashioned stop-motion way. The process is so meticulous, taking days to produce seconds of finished film, that "Curse of the Were-Rabbit" took nearly five years to finish, including an 18-month shooting schedule. That's a lot of work for an 85-minute film, but, if you want to know the truth, it was worth every second.


'Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit'

MPAA rating: G

Times guidelines: Mild transformation sequence

Released by DreamWorks SKG. Directors Nick Park, Steve Box. Producers Peter Lord, David Sproxton, Nick Park, Claire Jennings, Carla Shelley. Executive producers Michael Rose, Cecil Kramer. Screenplay Steve Box & Nick Park, Bob Baker and Mark Burton. Cinematographers Dave Alex Riddett, Tristan Oliver. Editors David McCormick, Gregory Perler. Music Julian Nott. Production design Phil Lewis. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. In general release.