Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Photo courtesy DreamWorks Animation SKG and TM Aardman Animations Ltd.
Emru Townsend · October 11, 2005 | Hollywood's recent song and dance has been about how audiences don't want that old-fashioned hand-drawn animation, and how we'd much rather prefer to live in the shiny, ultra-smooth world of CGI. Usually my counter-example to such bunk is the growing popularity of anime, which is mostly hand-drawn. But it seems that while we were distracted with the whole 2D vs. 3D thing, we hadn't noticed that stop-motion animation has been quietly going about its own little renaissance over the last few years. On TV there were Gary & Mike, Celebrity Deathmatch, The Wrong Coast, and Robot Chicken, with their crank-'em-out-quick aesthetic; in shorts, ambitious works like Ward 13 and Icthys, or the sassy, snappy works of PES; and in features, of course, the recent Corpse Bride.

It's not surprising that stop-motion largely sidestepped the whole discussion, considering that it skirts both worlds. CGI, at least as it's applied in Hollywood features, spends a fair bit of time trying to replicate reality; stop-motion, filmed as it is with real-world objects, already lives there. What we've retroactively labelled 2D is all about the vibrancy of the human touch, expressed by the subtle (or not so subtle) transformations that come naturally to the pencil-wielding animator; stop-motion is, quite literally, hands-on.

As it happens, this realization came to me while watching the latest entry in the stop-motion category, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, when I noticed a fingerprint embedded in a character's face—a reminder that regardless of technique, the hand of the animator is the most important thing.

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Directed by Nick Park and Steve Box
Aardman Animations
85 minutes

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Of course, right after that little revelation I went back to what I was doing: enjoying the hell out of Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park's second feature. It's also Aardman Animation's second, but it's the first to star the characters that arguably propelled the Bristol, UK studio to international stardom.

It's hard to believe, but it's been sixteen years since a clever English inventor and his cleverer dog made their debut in the 23-minute short A Grand Day Out. It's also remarkable that, in those 23 minutes, the pair's characters were immediately and firmly established, as instantly complete as Bugs Bunny in A Wild Hare.

Part of the appeal of the plasticine pair is that the fine folks at Aardman realize they were born complete. There's been no urge to go back to their early years, reveal hitherto unknown aspects of their personalities, or send them to exotic new locales. (Their trip to outer space in A Grand Day Out doesn't count; part of the joke is how matter-of-fact they are about building a rocket in order to have a cheese picnic on the moon.)

Park and company are content to keep Wallace and Gromit in their sleepy northern England town, their simple provincial outlook being part of their charm. And so it is that, like its short predecessors, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is at once familiar and refreshing. The question isn't where our heroes will venture; it's what adventures will come to them (and, to some degree, that they will bring onto themselves).

In Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wallace and Gromit have formed the company Anti-Pesto, promising humane elimination of garden-infesting pests. Their services are particularly in demand because the town's annual Giant Vegetable Contest is approaching, and rabbits have been merrily nibbling prized produce. Naturally, Wallace hasn't completely thought everything through, and while Anti-Pesto does a great job of removing the rodents, the duo's home has a bunny over-population problem. Inevitably, Wallace turns to inventing to solve the problem. And it's just as inevitable that his invention creates a bigger, hungrier problem.

Thankfully, that's the only thing that gets supersized in this movie. Curse of the Were-Rabbit sustains the Wallace and Gromit charm by largely avoiding the feature-film trap of making everything bigger and showier. The only two things that are increased—the slightly too-long climactic chase scene, and corny gags and visual references that are so bad they're good—are entirely forgivable. For those that worry about the American influence of DreamWorks on a quintessentially English production, or those that worry that Americans won't get the English humour, there's nothing to worry about. I might be biased, but the only gag that will most likely go over most heads on this side of the Atlantic is love interest Lady Tottingham's entirely inappropriate nickname, "Totty."

Perhaps Curse of the Were-Rabbit's only problem is how delightful it is, or rather its particular brand of delightfulness. A few days after seeing the film, I saw a Chevron/Techron ad that was animated by Aardman, and commented on how Nick Park's signature visual style, with its prominent teeth and eyes, appears to have single-handedly redefined Aardman's look. This isn't actually true, as works like Angry Kid, Hot Spot and Rex the Runt attest, but it's become easy to consider Park and Aardman as synonymous, especially as the features make up Aardman's most public face. They've produced many shorts over the years in a wide variety of styles, and I hope they go back to that variety with their upcoming features, such as next year's Ratropolis. Aardman has always had a good eye for high-quality visuals and a keen storytelling sense. I hope they can preserve those while exploring other styles and themes.
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