Wallace and Gromit make triumphant feature-length debut

by Matt Hill | 10/10/05 5:00am

"Consistency," Oscar Wilde once said, "is the last refuge of the unimaginative." Wilde was very perceptive, I think, about a good many things: cynicism, marriage, people who are boring, women who say that they're thirty-five. But in the case of Nick Park and his crew of devoted animators at Aardman Studios, I think there's something to be said for consistency -- consistency in quality, in drawing rich characters and in maintaining, throughout all of their films, that unique brand of gag-filled, tongue-in-cheek humor that has established Wallace and Gromit as two of the most appealing characters in animation history.

I remember the first time I ever saw one of Nick Park's "Wallace and Gromit" shorts; it was in fifth grade, and we were held indoors for recess because of the thunder and lightning outside. We had to push aside all the desks and sit on the thinly carpeted floor and wait patiently while the teacher held the VCR remote about two inches away from the TV screen. The static ("An ant war!" said one kid; "No, a snowball fight!" said another) turned to a blue screen and the blue screen turned black. And then we watched a very odd, very British clay-mation movie about a man and his dog who go to the moon only to discover that it's made entirely of cheese.

What was there not to love? "A Grand Day Out," as we found out it was called, confirmed many of our notions about the moon and, at 20 minutes long, appealed directly to our short attention spans. But more than that, we'd never seen anything like it -- nothing with its unique brand of humor, its whiz-bang inventiveness or its keen eye for that everyday quirkiness in life you can see if you look closely enough.

All of these things -- which came to be hallmarks of the series in the pair's subsequent adventures, "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave" -- carry over in a glorious way to "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit."

Case in point: One of the first shots in the film pans across a series of framed pictures in Wallace's kitchen which, when viewed in succession, tells the story of some argument that the two must have had. In the first picture, they're hugging, while in the second, they offer each other mild looks of disgust. In the third, they're facing opposite directions. Then, in the fourth, they've gone so far as to be in entirely different picture frames. But by the sixth or seventh picture, of course, they're back in the same frame, in a tentative embrace. (Gromit likely offered Wallace a nice block of Westminster or Etam.) It is this kind of thing -- these casual sight gags thrown in effortlessly -- that distinguishes these movies from almost everything else out there.

The basic silliness of the film's plot won't be a surprise to anyone who's seen one of Park's films. Wallace (Peter Sallis) and Gromit have invented a new pest-control system for people in their provincial town consisting of carefully placed garden gnomes that act as motion detectors. Through a complex arrangement involving a bed poker, a teakettle and at least two pulley systems, the duo are alerted of any pesky rabbits who may be trying to filch a few carrots and whisk them away to their mysterious forest stronghold.

It's a timely invention too, since the well-to-do Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter) is holding the 517th Giant Vegetable Fete, and all the gardeners in town are nursing their best veggies like newborns. While Wallace and Gromit's pest system, called "Anti-Pesto," has put a good number of red-handed rabbits behind bars -- in a little pen in Wallace's basement -- there's still room for competition which comes in the form of Lord Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), a toupee-wearing, trigger-happy rabbit hunter who looks more suited to be chasing alligators in the Australian outback. Wallace and Gromit respond to Quartermaine's rather violent methods by inventing the Mind-o-Matic, a device that effectively brainwashes rabbits from ever wanting to eat vegetables again, yet in true comic-book fashion, a technical mishap creates the dreaded titular Were-Rabbit instead.

Laughs abound throughout the movie, with many coming from Keaton-esque misperception gags and the sheer eccentricity of the supporting characters. Yet the central source of humor in the movie, as in the previous short films, revolves around the reversed dynamic between man and dog. Wallace may be an extraordinarily adept inventor, but it's clear that the true brains of the operation is Gromit, whose incredibly well-animated eyes are more expressive and emotive than any of the work done this year by the CG sector of Dreamworks Animation. Throughout the movie, it is Wallace who makes the messes, and Gromit who cleans them up.

It's always interesting to gauge audience reactions to a movie as you're filing up the aisles to the exits; for a few moments, it's like you're listening in on an open discussion to which you can compare your own thoughts. There was a wide range of reactions that I heard as I was leaving "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," some pleased, some awed. A girl about seven rows down was repeatedly poking her mom's shoulder, shouting over and over, "Those rabbits were so cute!" while an older man, a few rows behind me, kept repeating the words "really clever" as he struggled to put his jacket on.

But it was my friend, as we walked out of the Nugget and into the rainy night, whose thoughts most aligned with mine. "What a delightful movie," she said. "That's really all it was."

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