|Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Starring: voices of Peter Sallis, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Peter Kay
Director: Nick Park and Steve Box
ALSO! Check out where it ranked in our 2005 Year in Review.
Things have clearly gotten a bit randy at Aardman Animation since we last checked in with Nick Park & Co. The kings of claymation, who have won two Oscars for their efforts (“The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave”), were the last bastion of clean, smart storytelling, making films both long and short (they made 2000’s “Chicken Run” as well) that the entire family, all clichés aside, can enjoy. From cyberdogs and thieving penguins, to sheep that can operate power tools, Wallace & Gromit represented a kind of moviemaking that was innocent but clever, which was a breath of fresh air in these oversexed times.
I used past tense in that last sentence for a reason; “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” the title characters’ feature film debut, contains sexual innuendo that would make Austin Powers blush. It also has bodily function humor, a first for them as well. The jokes themselves are harmless enough, and will surely sail right on over the kids’ heads. But why are they there at all? Aardman has proven time and again that they’re smart enough that they don’t have to resort to a boob joke to get a laugh. So why did they do it here, not once but twice? Methinks that distributor DreamWorks Animation got their smutty little “Shrek” paws on this one, handing the Aardman crew “notes” on what would make the movie a better sell. If that’s true, what they really wound up doing was selling Aardman down the river.
In this installment, Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis), who does odds jobs by trade but is an inventor at heart, runs a pest control service (as in rodent, not bug) with his dog Gromit, the best dead quiet straight man since Silent Bob. Their work is in high demand, as the townsfolk are busy preparing for the annual giant vegetable contest, and rabbits are wreaking havoc on people’s gardens. Wallace’s humane methods for capturing the rabbits attracts the eye of contest sponsor Lady Tottington (hilariously voiced by Helena Bonham Carter), and thus draws the ire of her beau, the gun-happy Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes). Wallace experiments on one of the rabbits to see if he can get them to stop eating vegetables, using a new invention that involves brain manipulation. Naturally, things go awry, and Wallace soon discovers that he’s created a beast that could ruin every garden in the city, as well as the vegetable contest.
The first two acts of the movie are actually solid, filled with vintage W&G moments as well as some stunning animation. The scene where Wallace sucks all of the rabbits out of Lady Tottington’s yard is the funniest scene in the movie, and the sequence where Gromit chases the were-rabbit underground is staggering; you’re not likely to see lighting that good in a live action movie, never mind a stop-motion one. Aardman was also wise to stick with tradition and make Lady Tottington one of the ugliest love interests in movie history (yes, she’s even homelier than Wendolene in “A Close Shave”). Victor Quartermaine (voiced to perfection by Fiennes) is even uglier, if that’s at all possible.
It is the movie’s third act, though, that gives the game away. The story, as well as the action, feels hastily pasted together. While there are still bits that are trademark Aardman whimsy (two words: change purse), they recycle one crucial bit from “A Close Shave” that doesn’t work nearly as well the second time around. Lastly, the climax is a stretch, to say the least. Given the setup, the manner in which the main dilemma is solved doesn’t make any sense.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on “Were-Rabbit.” There are times when a project can be too near and dear to be viewed objectively. But the sex jokes here cannot be overlooked; Aardman has never done one before, and their presence here suggests the meddling hands of a nervous parent company that needs a hit in the worst way. Overall, the movie has some truly inspired moments, but in the overall W&G canon, its ranks third behind “Trousers” and “Close Shave.” That’s not bad company to keep, but “Were-Rabbit” could have been so much more.
We don't know much about the DVD release of Wallace & Gromit's first full-length feature, but we do know that it will include behind-the-scenes documentaries, the award-winning Aardman short "Stagefright," deleted scenes with optional commentary and much more. There should be enough extras to keep you busy for a few hours, but we can only hope that the planned two-disc set being released in Europe will find its way on to a region 1 disc sometime soon.