Friday, October 07, 2005

REVIEW: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

I love Wallace & Gromit.

I think I should say that up front, for the benefit of those who are aware that this film is playing but are not aware that the titular characters are part of a pre-established franchise. Much like "Serenity," this film arrives as a long-awaited feature version of a cult phenomenon, but unlike the aforementioned Joss Whedon scifi flick this fact has NOT been a big part of it's promotion. Thus, I can imagine that many folks who end up seeing and enjoying it may be a bit perplexed as to why so many reviewers seem so deeply attached to the stars of such a lighthearted, slapsticky endeavor.

So yes, for the record: Wallace and Gromit originated in a trilogy of claymation short films by Brit animator Nick Park, and I'm a fan. There's actually quite a few of us, including an apparently massive cross-section of film critics. This is NOT to suggest at all that ANYONE needs any kind of "beginner's class" to enjoy the film: The original shorts, like the new film, are broad (if uniquely British) comedies of visual slapstick; and everything you might need to know about the characters is to be gleaned immediately from the stand-alone film: Wallace is a chipper, if incredibly dense, absent-minded inventor, and Gromit is his infinitely more intelligent, competent (but voiceless) dog.

As the film opens, the pair are currently operating Anti-Pesto, a security/extermination service dedicated to the humane pest-control of the rabbit population that threatens the local Giant Vegetable competition. The chief patron of the event, Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter) is an animal lover and thrilled with their tender treatment of the bunnies; but her evil suitor Quartermain (Ralph Feinnes) is an old-school Great White Hunter who resents the Anti-Pesto crew robbing him of would-be floppy-earned targets.

Ever the inventor, (and hoping to win Tottington's favor,) Wallace concocts a lunar-powered device to let him "brainwash" the rabbits out of their vegetable obsession. Something goes terribly wrong (as is usually the case with Wallace's inventions) and soon the whole countryside is buzzing with rumors of a monster-sized rabbit terrorizing the vegetable population. This development leaves Quartermain salivating for a hunt and Wallace pressed into service to deal with the problem "humanely," and any fan of the series can tell you that when Wallace is the better of your choices for a hero you're in pretty precarious shape. Gromit, as usual, emotes subtly to himself (using only his brow and eyes) no doubt grumbling about innevitably having to sort the mess out in the end. And just who IS the Were-Rabbit, anyway...?

This is a hysterically funny, infectiously happy little film. Everything, from the people to the buildings to the vegetables are just so wonderfully pleasant looking I can't imagine anyone not at least smiling throughout the proceedings. Park and his Aardman Animation crew are masters of subtle background jokes and slap-happy physical gags. They draw astounding amounts of hilarity from such odd sources as garden gnomes and the simple "funny-looking-ness" of rabbits. They imbue their characters with an eerie degree of subtle humanity: Few other studios could make the simple act of Gromit leaning over to lock a car door into one a film's biggest laughs.

Speaking strictly as a fan for a moment... I don't believe, overall, that this outing is quite as perfect as the series high point in "The Wrong Trousers", but it's a very thin line. Let it be said, at the very least, that it's a worthy entry in the W&G mythology and is, like it's fellows therein, among the funniest pieces of modern animation since the passing of the original Looney Toons.

Some fans, also, may be a bit surprised at an added element of slightly more "ribald" background gags (riffs on the dual meaning of "moon," and the Cockney pronounciation of the word "horse," etc.) Nothing, I repeat, NOTHING that would make it unsuitable for young viewers, but it is definately a new ingredient to the stew. And, yes, these jokes like the others are excruciatingly funny. (Though I'm sure SOMEONE will eventually take issue with the Priest who prays for the health of his vegetables and sprinkles them with holy water.)

There's not much left to say after that. The film is what it is, and what it is is a delight. A total, complete and absolute marvel of a family movie outing that will reward all ages and certainly require repeat viewings. See immediately.