Plasticene Never Looked So Precious

By now it's a sight familiar to countless Wallace & Gromit fans: At the pull of a lever, Wallace's mattress, counter-weighted by a cinder block hanging from the ceiling, tips up steeply like the bed of a dump truck, dropping Wallace neatly through a trap door in the floor at the foot of the bed directly into his chair at the breakfast table, where mechanical arms commence dressing him …

Oops. Not so fast. It seems Wallace isn't slipping through the trap door quite as handily as he once did. On the kitchen table is a possible indication of the culprit: a jar of spread. “Middle-Aged Spread,” to be precise.

Ah, yes. Stop-motion animation cult heroes Wallace & Gromit, the brainchildren of British animator Nick Park, may not be unchanged in the transition from their charmingly dotty, wildly funny shorts to their first feature-length film, but they're still recognizably themselves. The humor is a bit broader at times, with a sprinkling of rude humor not found in the shorts “A Grand Day Out,” “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave” (though in the main comparable to jokes in Park and Aardman's first feature film, Chicken Run, and mostly within the bounds of reasonable taste).

But the same wacky invention, cheerful silliness and satiric homage of classic film as those classic shorts animates Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

What a canny stroke of luck or genius that Park made Wallace — bald-headed, cheese-loving Wooster to level-headed Gromit's canine Jeeves — an eccentric inventor. That conceit opens the world of Wallace & Gromit to a host of possibilities, from the endearing moon shot of “A Grand Day Out” motivated by the quest for cheese (“Everyone knows the moon is made of cheese…”) to the exquisite parody of 1950s sci-fi thrillers in “The Wrong Trousers.”

Now, in Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wallace's do-it-yourself, eccentric-scientist puttering provides the occasion for a sublimely silly excursion into the world of classic Terence Fisher-style 1960s British horror (The Curse of the Werewolf, The Curse of Frankenstein) and 1930s Hollywood horror (King Kong, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

As always, Park brings perfect pitch to his evocation of the conventions and devices of his inspirations: the glistening of rain-slicked streets at night, the “jump” moment of an eerie silence abruptly interrupted by a large object unexpectedly crashing onto the hood (or bonnet) of a car; the angry, frightened pitchfork-packing mob.

At the same time, there are images of strange charm and even beauty that come from nowhere but Park's own eccentric imagination, such as the inexplicably poetic vision of bunnies floating dreamily in space, suspended in the clear plastic containment tank of Wallace's humane vacuum-powered rabbit-extractor, the “Bun-Vac 6000.”

As this suggests, Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis), last seen dabbling in window washing (“It's only temporary … I'm inventing mostly”), have gone into the pest-control business under the trade name “Anti-Pesto,” and are now putting their techno-smarts to work protecting the neighbors’ vegetable gardens from ravenous herbivores.

It's a shrewd career move, as vegetable gardening is a local passion. In fact, every year by local tradition there's a vegetable show at the posh Tottington estate, home of the deliciously flighty Lady Tottington (a hilarious Helena Bonham Carter), who becomes one of Wallace's customers, and may become even more. (Lady Tottington is known informally as “Totty,” which, I'm told, is both an old-fashioned nickname for “Dorothy” and current British slang for “hottie” or “babe.”)

In this neighborhood, veggies are lovingly tucked in at night like children, and nocturnal bunny attacks are as feared as kidnappings, so Wallace has a sizable customer base. He also has potential competition, both in the bunny-control department and as a possible suitor to Totty: Lord Quartermaine (grandly over-the-top Ralph Fiennes), a sneering, aristocratic British counterpart to Beauty and the Beast's Gaston, brandishes his ever-present shotgun as a constant alternative to Wallace's more humane methods.

What does Wallace do with his incarcerated bunnies? He claims it's a “trade secret,” but the truth is he's got them all in hutches back at his house. To experiment on them? No, he's just too kind to dumb animals to dispose of them, let alone experiment with.

And yet: What if the rabbits’ destructive appetite for veggies — like Wallace's over-fondness for cheese — could be scientifically treated?

Naturally, this ill-advised course of action has disastrous results, and leads to a scene in which the high-strung local vicar (Nicholas Smith) inveighs against the consequences of “tampering with nature.” Lord Northcliffe, though, snorts at these fears, suggesting that “the vicar's been at the communion wine again.”

This line, incidentally, is one of the two more objectionable bits in the film, the other one being a fleeting gag about the vicar reading “nun wrestling” magazines on the sly. It's a measure of the inappropriateness of the drinking line that the Catholic viewer can't help overanalyzing the sacramental issues: The reference is presumably to unconsecrated wine, and in its Anglican setting the whole sacramental ickiness is less problematic than it would be in a Catholic setting. Yet even to have such thoughts flicker through one's mind is to be taken out of the film.

Which is too bad, because the film offers a fair amount of fun. As a fearsome fluffy lapine monster rampages about the countryside, Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a delight. As always, Gromit, as doggedly silent and resourceful as Buster Keaton, is the true hero, and the rousing finale is far and away his finest hour.

Between the computerized slickness of Pixar's masterpieces and other digital hits (the Shrek flicks, Ice Age) on the one hand, and the failure of such hand-drawn efforts as Treasure Planet and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron on the other, Hollywood has developed a serious case of cold feet regarding the hand-crafted charm of traditional animation. This amounts to blaming the medium for the failure of the artists.

Curse of the Were-Rabbit, along with the more mature and genuinely macabre Corpse Bride, represents a creative triumph of artists working with pose-able puppets, a form of hand-done animation older and clunkier than cel animation. It's a giddy success of sorts, and a welcome return for two old friends.

Content advisory: Comic menace and excitement; mild rude humor of both the family-film and bawdy varieties, including some comic belching and a few double-entendres; fleeting unflattering comic references to an Anglican cleric surreptitiously reading “nun wrestling” magazines and allegedly tippling communion wine.

Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of