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May 13, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 13, 2006 |

The thing about stop-motion animation is that it always looks good. In elementary school they showed us those old Will Vinton shorts, everything from the California Raisins singing Motown to Dinosaur, starring the much beloved and sorely missed Fred Savage, and I always loved them. There’s something about the nature of stop-motion that lends it an inherent credibility, even though its clumsiness means your brain won’t be fooled into thinking you’re watching something real. It’s a medium both completely unbelievable (I know those doughy figures aren’t moving under their own power) and totally real (that’s real light shining on the characters, etc.). You can feel the texture when you watch something stop-motion, the kind of effortless realism that can’t be replicated with CGI. It’s the undeniable physical presence of the models that made Ray Harryhausen a titan (sorry) in the field. You can argue all you want about the plausibility of the plots, but there’s no denying that Wallace and Gromit, the co-stars of Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit are really there.

Wallace and Gromit began life in a series of short films, two of which, A Close Shave and The Wrong Trousers, won Oscars. Park debuted on the scene with Creature Comforts, another Academy Award winner, but it was his tales of an absent-minded British inventor and his faithful, silent dog that earned him cult status.

In the feature, the duo run Anti-Pesto, a vermin-capture business whose clients depend on the pair to keep their gardens free of rabbits. Wallace (Peter Sallis), a proponent of humane animal disposal, houses the rabbits in his basement. Because he’s a part-time inventor, he’s got a house full of minor gadgets designed to make life a little easier, so it’s only a matter of time before he begins to experiment with, you guessed it, brainwashing the rabbits. His goal is to train them to hate vegetables, thus solving everyone’s gardening problems. But things go horribly awry (cue organ music) when his efforts accidentally create a were-rabbit, a creature brought out by the full moon that ravages the town’s carrot patches. It’s a thin but enjoyable plot that lets Park run wild in the field of campy, B-movie monster cliches: Thunder accompanies major plot revelations; the monster kidnaps the girl; etc. But the real joy of the film comes from watching Park work in a medium of which he’s an undisputed master.

All of this raises the question: Would the movie be as good if it weren’t stop-motion? If this were another generic CGI tale from DreamWorks, like Madagascar, or if it were a traditional 2-D hand-drawn affair, would Wallace & Gromit be as enjoyable? The answer: no, not really.

Park is able to evoke more emotions than should be possible from Gromit, a dog whose expressions consist of eyebrow manipulations and deadpan glances into the camera. But the joy isn’t in watching the character’s actions, like in a 2-D or CG picture, but in marveling at how they were made to react. In certain close-up shots, tiny ridges in Wallace and Gromit’s surfaces are visible, and it took me a moment to realize I was seeing fingerprints, the tiny whorls from the thumbs that moved these creations one frame at a time for several years, just to create an 85-minute feature. And realizing that was awe-inspiring. It’s a solid story, yes, but the sheer volume of blood, sweat and clay carrots that went into the thing place it in a higher echelon than CG features because no amount of mouse-clicking and clever voice casting (if David Schwimmer could be called that) can compare with the love Park obviously has for his work.

(Speaking of Madagascar: there’s a CG-animated short attached to Wallace & Gromit starring the penguins from the DreamWorks movie. Apparently, the studio thinks that by producing more content related to Madagascar, it can fool the general public into thinking that the penguins were breakout characters and that Madagascar was really a better movie than we remember. But don’t be fooled: it’s not. The writing in the cartoon is workable enough, but playing it before Wallace & Gromit only highlights the staggering volume of care and love that went into the stop-motion feature, while offering us a sad reminder that animated features in Hollywood are more about in-vogue technology than any kind of storytelling ingenuity.)

So Wallace and Gromit set out to find and capture the were-rabbit before it can ruin the annual vegetable contest held by Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter), who finds herself pursued romantically by Wallace and a local hunter, Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes). Fiennes is outstanding here, an over-the-top caricature that’s the perfect foil for Sallis’ soft-spoken cheese-lover. Carter’s flighty voice is spot-on, too; be sure to keep a sharp eye out for her innuendos, including one scene in a garden where she complains to Wallace that no man has ever really “admired her produce,” while she gently strokes a couple of melons on a shelf. (Is this thing really rated G?)

Park’s clay models soar to life in a series of chase scenes, all culminating in a big battle at the vegetable contest that harks back to Harryhausen himself. If you think there are any surprises here, you’re obviously in it for the wrong reasons. Wallace and Gromit isn’t a great film, but it’s certainly an enjoyable one, and worth seeing for the marriage of story and creativity, something increasingly rare in animated movies.

Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit / Daniel Carlson

Film | May 13, 2006 |

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