Saturday, October 08, 2005

Review - Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

When Nick Park created the characters of Wallace and Gromit for a university project, he surely could never have imagined where the genial cloth-capped Yorkshire inventor and his faithful hound would take him. Park can now make a fair claim at being Britain’s most successful contemporary filmmaker, picking up three Academy Awards for his shorts (two for Wallace and Gromit and one for Creature Comforts) and making a pretty successful feature debut with Chicken Run. Now Park has turned once again to his much loved original characters for his second feature film, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

It has been five years since Chicken Run, but Park and his production team haven’t been slacking; they have been deeply mired in the arduous stop-motion process which brings their characters to life. This approach may seem like an anachronism in the modern age of spectacular CGI animation, but there is something wonderfully real about Wallace and Gromit which can’t be captured by a computer. The rough-around-the-edges appearance of the plasticine characters (sometimes you can spot fleeting glimpses of a fingerprint on their skin) gives them a sense of reality and depth, while the painstaking efforts of the huge crews involved in the animation seem to imbue the film with a genuine heart and soul.

Wallace and Gromit’s world is a small corner of Northern England which is preparing for the 517th annual Giant Vegetable competition. Our heroes’ new pest control service - Anti-Pesto - is in charge of security, which means keeping tabs on the pesky rabbits who have been causing so much damage to the local crops. Anti-Pesto provides a humane method of catching the rabbits, safely storing them at Wallace’s house (although storage is starting to prove quite a problem), and this is an approach which is admired by local toff Lady Tottington. However, soon an even bigger problem arises in the shape of a mysterious giant rabbit creature which is ravaging crops across the village at night. Wallace is determined to catch the creature through non-lethal means, but sneering cad Victor Quatermaine believes a gun is the only way to be sure, and he’s not happy to see a rival for Lady Tottington’s affections in the unlikely shape of Wallace.

Fans of Wallace and Gromit’s previous adventures will be delighted to hear that, in spite of this Dreamworks-backed offering being their big screen debut, they haven’t changed a bit. The scatter-brained Wallace is still beautifully voiced by Peter Sallis and his loyal partner Gromit is still the brains of the operation. Gromit may never speak (the poor chap doesn’t even have a mouth) but with his quizzical brow he possesses one of the most expressive faces in cinema, with a gift for deadpan to rank alongside Chaplin or Keaton. Curse of the Were-Rabbit does have a couple of bona-fide movie stars among the cast in the shape of Helena Bonham-Carter (Lady Tottington) and Ralph Fiennes (Victor Quagmire) but their presence is never allowed to overshadow the film; indeed, most viewers will be so caught up in the action that they’ll hardly know or care who is providing the vocal talents.

Curse of the Were-Rabbit doesn’t stray too far from the formula which served Park so well in his previous films with the pair. There’s a strong, distinctive strain of typically English humour running through the film with plenty of Carry-On style innuendo and cheesy puns littering the script, and it’s a blessing to see that Park and his co-writer/director Steve Box haven’t tempered the jokes to appeal to an international audience (Wallace’s copy of ‘Hello’ magazine is entitled ‘Ey-Up’). The film includes a number of fun references to classic horror films and every single frame is crammed with clever little sight gags, many of which speed past too fast to be caught on a first viewing. Once again, Park has proved himself a master of comic timing, which is a remarkable feat when you consider the frame-by-frame technique with which these scenes are put together, and in Curse of the Were-Rabbit he hits the mark every single time.

Park seems to have learned the lessons of the entertaining but ultimately forgettable Chicken Run and Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a much more streamlined film which manages to sustain the humour and action right up to the closing credits. The script is expertly worked out, delivering a nice twist just at the point when the pace threatens to flag and carefully building to a spectacular airborne finale. Park’s films habitually contain elaborate and exciting action sequences, which must be sheer hell to produce, yet they never make a big deal of these scenes and instead they almost throw them out as if they’re the easiest thing in the world.

Curse of the Were-Rabbit is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. Take any five minute section from the film and you’re almost guaranteed to find more invention, wit and heart than any other studio feature has managed this year. The dedication shown by Park and his tireless team has once again produced a blast of pure cinematic joy which never puts a foot wrong and confirms Wallace and Gromit as one of the great double-acts. There’s a fair chance that this will win Park his fourth Oscar and it would be the very least he deserves for such a magical film. Curse of the Were-Rabbit is simply marvellous; kids will undoubtedly love it and adults will probably get an extra little kick out of it, because they’ll understand the work that went into it. It’s a grand day out for viewers of all ages.