One of the central mysteries (and delights) of the film duo known as Wallace and Gromit is the relationship between man and dog. Gromit certainly seems to be the more responsible of the two; his capabilities are greater and his grasp of reality is stronger. Wallace is good-natured and lovable, to be sure, but as we've seen in their previous outings (particularly The Wrong Trousers), he isn't as considerate towards Gromit as he should be. Why does this long-suffering voiceless (indeed, mouthless) canine put up with the absent-minded and selfish inventor?
You'd probably have to be a dog to understand.
Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit returns us to the home of our heroes as they embark on a new venture. As "Anti-Pesto," the friends guard the town's vegetable gardens from various vermin, the most voracious of course being rabbits. With sophisticated alarm technology and highly refined attack strategies, Anti-Pesto traps the offending bunnies before they can make off with prize pumpkins destined for the upcoming vegetable festival. Of course, being Wallace and Gromit they cannot bring themselves to actually exterminate the animals, so their house is overrun with inmates for whom they must then prepare meals. Whether W&G plan to house the rabbits for the rest of their lives, or how they deal with the inevitable population explosion, is never explored. Nor should it be, but it is an amusing side effect of a well-crafted comedy to be able to ponder these things after the fact.
In a previous installment we watched Wallace construct a rocket ship capable of lunar travel. It is not too much of a stretch, then, to suppose that he could also make a machine capable of removing "unwanted desires" from the brain such as the desire to eat too much cheese (his own vice) or the voracious appetite for veggies (the rabbits'). It is when Wallace tries to impose his will on the bunnies through this machine that things go wrong. A new menace prowls the streets, viciously assaulting the neighborhood gardens, and Gromit begins to notice some odd behavior from one of the captured rabbits . . . .
One of the promotional stills for the film features Wallace and Gromit racing down a country road in their Anti-Pesto mobile. It is an image imprinted with Nick Park's style in that there are three separate jokes contained therein. (Four, if you count the image of a dog leaning out the door of a speeding car and holding a butterfly net.) There is of course the name "Anti-Pesto" itself, the term "Swat Team" (accompanied by a fly-swatter graphic), and the license plate "Hop2It," a reference to the bunnies they capture. To our delight, every scene of the film is crammed with such gags, verbal and visual. Some filmmakers wouldn't be able to keep such humor from wearing out its welcome (The Lady from Sockholm comes to mind as a one-joke film that quickly gets old), but the jests in Were-Rabbit are varied and subtle enough to hold an audience in their thrall. There are even a couple of scenes where the jokes wander into ribaldry (at one point Wallace hastily clads himself in a food box that claims it "may contain nuts"), though these are few and coy enough to evade any serious objection. Topping it off is a thoughtful homage to King Kong which will draw applause from any audience, even those not conscious of the fact that the entire film is a tribute to the more suspenseful era of classic monster movies.
Were-Rabbit operates in that strange and wonderful land (let's call it "England") where no one questions the importance (or entertainment value) of an annual vegetable festival which has been held for 500 years running and a dog can raise a giant melon in a secure greenhouse with real hope of winning the coveted golden carrot trophy. It is also a place where, under the proper comedic circumstances, carnival bumper-car airplanes can take flight -- so long as you have the correct change to keep them operating. Such conceits have always been the foundations of Wallace and Gromit stories, and they continue to work here. Some may find the retro-English setting too fanciful or overly precious, but these are not the sort of people we would invite round for cheese and crackers.
The regular voice of Wallis, Peter Sallis, is joined by a cast of prominent British actors including Ralph Fiennes, Liz Smith, and Helena Bonham-Carter, who provides the picture with its most welcome (human) addition to the W&G universe. Vegetable carnival sponsor Lady Tottington, apart from being a fitting object of Wallace's affections, is the canvas upon which a splendorous array of veggie-inspired clothing is hung throughout the film. Fiennes provides as much mirth with a comic style that could be described as eye-rollingly extravagant, if only we could see his eyes instead of those of his on-screen manifestation, Victor Quartermain.
The movie steadily works its way towards a clamorous but not unwelcome chase scene that allows the animators to flaunt their craft. The previous film from this production company, Chicken Run, seemed a bit too glossy. Were-Rabbit, on the other hand, feels as home-spun as any of the previous Wallace and Gromit adventures, even as it climbs to vertiginous new heights. There are a few effects which could only have been generated with the help of computers (such as bunnies in a glass-walled vacuum who float in mid-air), but overall the film gives the rock-solid sense of reality that as yet can only be accomplished in an animated film by photographing stop-motion miniatures. This painstaking work has its drawbacks, as evidenced by the fact that Nick Park's movies appear only twice a decade. (This is made even more painful by the realization that several times that many Shreks will appear in a similar time frame.) Still, as long as the scripts are this good and Gromit stays loyal, we'll be grateful for all the time we can get in the company of these characters.