Wallace and Gromit: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (U)

Nick Park, Steve Box and their team have crafted something of great artistry, originality and wit, says Anthony Quinn

Yet Park had not made the change from shorts, as it were, to longs, essentially because he needed to find a story that would justify 85 minutes rather than 30. The time-consuming nature of stop-motion animation, where one minute of film can take weeks of concentrated effort, made it doubly daunting. As Park's co-director Steve Box put it, "making an 85-minute [stop-motion] feature is like making the Great Wall of China with matchsticks".

The directors, along with their previous collaborators Mark Burton and Bob Baker, have got their feature-length story, and (relief all round) it's a belter. When you hear that four people have worked on a script you can usually expect a dog's dinner. Not here. The Curse of The Were-Rabbit seamlessly combines the familiarity of the Wallace and Gromit dynamic with a plot of headlong excitement, mined with multitudinous quirks of detail and some wondrously silly surprises.

With the studio DreamWorks on board, for the money, there might have been anxieties over American influence, yet Park's sensibility stamps it as a very English comedy of character as much as a spectacle of leapfrogging invention. He knows that virtuosity, amazing as it is, would be nothing without the affectionate warmth that blooms in the mere contemplation of one man and his dog.

That relationship is the bedrock of this movie. Wallace, voiced as ever by Peter Sallis, remains the daffy, cheese-loving suburban inventor whose disaster-prone ways are held in check by his silent dog Gromit, who mixes the resourcefulness of Lassie with the impeccable sangfroid of Buster Keaton.

He is certainly the only dog in movies who counts knitting as his hobby. As well as being chief cook and bottle-washer, Gromit is partner to Wallace in their latest business venture, Anti-Pesto, a control service that prevents rabbits from munching through the town's gardens, and is now in particular demand as the annual Giant Vegetable Competition approaches. Unfortunately, after experimenting with his Mind-O-Matic ("harmless brain alteration") Wallace unwittingly lets slip a ravening, outsized bunny known as the were-rabbit, and soon no vegetable plot is safe.

As the title implies, the film is a comic twist on the classic Universal horror movies of the 1940s, much as Carry On Screaming was 40 years ago. Yet the animating spirit owes rather more to the quaint 1950s atmosphere of Ealing, whether it be cosy front-rooms, string vests or bobbies on the beat, not to mention those distinct tremors of class difference, here prompted by Wallace's flirtation with the local aristocracy. Lady Campanula Tottington (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) has secured the services of Anti-Pesto to deal with the were-rabbit humanely, yet comes to regard Wallace as rather more than the hired help.

This is a cause of considerable annoyance to Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), a moustachioed toff who not only fancies himself as the lady's suitor but intends to dispatch the were-rabbit by the rather less humane means of a shotgun.

As the plot stalks into B-movie territory, the visual and verbal humour soars into the stratosphere. It's vital that you keep alert, otherwise tiny sparks of invention will shoot right past, like the jar of "middle-aged spread" that sits on Wallace's breakfast table, or the "Smug" fridge, or the local variant of Hello! magazine, "Ay-Up!"

It comes to something when one feels obscurely disappointed by the sight of a box of tea bags labelled merely "Tea Bags". Still more admirable are the marvels of expressiveness Park and his team conjure on the face of Gromit, a face, let it be noted, that forgoes the luxury of a mouth - so smiling is out. His default setting is here-we-go-again stoicism (the long-suffering flick of the eyes heavenwards) yet, from the simple tweak of his brow one may also discern confusion, panic, determination, astonishment, even grief. It is small wonder that his performance has been hailed as comparable to the greats of the silent era.

Gromit is also at the centre of the film's most freakishly inspired sequences. I loved the image of this supremely capable pooch in welding goggles as he rivets together a super-strength rabbit-cage; or bounding across garden fences astride a Space Hopper; or slyly clicking the locks on his car-doors as the moon disappears and the were-rabbit emerges. Goggles, Space Hoppers, car-locks. Park and co have a terrific instinct for mundane accoutrements and their comic potential. But, then again, it might be simply because they're being operated by a dog. The eccentricity feels as English as a Sunday roast, yet its appeal is evidently universal. Will there be a funnier sight in cinema this year than Wallace's turquoise Y-fronts springing onto Victor's startled face?

If there's a small criticism it would be only that the film isn't quite sustained for its length. The fairground finale, in which a "dog fight" is mounted on a literal and figurative level, felt like a set piece I'd already seen elsewhere. But, really, it deserves only praise. Nick Park, Steve Box and their team have crafted something of great artistry, originality and wit, the like of which we'll probably not encounter until the next Pixar movie. In an age when most eagerly seek a formula for success, The Curse of The Were-Rabbit triumphs by defying the very idea of a formula.

The news of the Aardman Animation studios' destruction by fire is a grave setback, but expect a phoenix to rise from the ashes - and, undoubtedly, made of Plasticine.

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