Saturday, January 03, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: Wallace & Gromit in Curse of the Were-Rabbit

A second viewing might alter my opinion, but I have to admit to a slight feeling of disappointment at Nick Park’s latest Wallace & Gromit animation, ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’, screened on BBC1 on Christmas Day. An inspired title, but for the first time in their 19-year partnership, encompassing four shorts and one feature-length film, it seemed like Wallace & Gromit by-the-numbers.

Was it really 1989 that the incomparable duo – cheese-loving, mild-mannered eccentric inventor Wallace (voiced by ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ stalwart Peter Sallis) and his faithful, if much put-upon, pooch Gromit (voiced by no-one; a world of emotion is contained in the movement of his eyes) – were introduced in the offbeat ‘A Grand Day Out’? According to IMDb it was, and boy does that make me feel old!

It was 1993’s ‘The Wrong Trousers’, boasting superior production values, that fully realised Park’s 1950’s-tinged vision: the small-town Northern locale (not too dissimilar from the Holmfirth of ‘Summer Wine’); the genre-based storyline (the vaguely sci-fi musings of ‘A Grand Day Out’ here replaced by a heist caper); and a frenetic commitment to high-speed visual inventiveness (Gromit and the penguin’s lunatic and hilarious model railway chase).

Two years later came ‘A Close Shave’, arguably the best of the short films. Another crime plot (sheep rustling); Gromit set up to take the rap (a priceless in-joke has the incarcerated canine sitting morosely in his cell reading ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Fido Dogstoyevsky!); Wallace’s inventions taking on a ‘Thunderbirds’-style level of intricacy. Marvellous stuff.

But, for me at least, the high point was their triumphant transition to the big screen in 2005 with ‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’, co-directed by Park and Steve Box. The narrative, entirely in keeping with Park’s nostalgic ’50s aesthetic, conjures up a plethora of cheesy horror genre B-movies.

Starting as it means to go on with deliberately lurid lettering for the title credit and ominous music, ‘C of the W-R’ sees the daring duo running a vegetable security firm called Anti-Pesto. Business is good and their clients sleep soundly knowing that their prize cucumbers and carrots and cauliflowers are being protected from a village-wide rabbit infestation. And with Lady Tottington’s Annual Vegetable Competition imminent, Wallace & Gromit’s very reputation is at stake should anything go wrong and the goods get gnawed or nibbled.

Something, of course, goes wrong. Summoned to Tottington Hall to rid the grounds of rapacious rabbits (note to self: enough with the alliteration already!), Wallace hits it off with Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter) who is particularly taken with his humane treatment of the captured bunnies: he houses them in the cellar of chez Wallace and feeds them while he puts the finishing touches to his mind-control device. In arguably the most imaginative send-up of ‘Frankenstein’ since Mel Brooks’ legendary spoof, Wallace hooks himself up to the machine, intent on brainwashing the rabbits into an aversion to all vegetables. More ominous music; flashes of lightning. The experiment goes horribly wrong. Wallace creates a monster.

A huge, bounding, almost criminally cute monster.

With said were-rabbit on the rampage, allotments attacked, vegetables violated and Anti-Pesto’s reputation ruined (seriously: enough with the alliteration, Neil!), Lady Tottington’s roundly rejected but pitifully persistent smug suitor Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes) proffers the services of himself, his hunting rifle, and his borderline psychotic bulldog. And he doesn’t care if Wallace & Gromit get in the way …

‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ spends a good half of its 90-minute running time setting out its stall: establishing characters, situations, locations, narrative and internal dynamics. Then Box and Park unleash a series of frenetic set-pieces culminating in a showdown at the vegetable competition which homages ‘Jaws’, ‘King Kong’ and – in the film’s standout mise-en-scene where Gromit and Quartermaine’s dog battle it out in model aeroplanes – ‘The Blue Max’.

The jokes come think and fast: “I think it’s a case of arson,” Peter Kay’s P.C. Mackintosh deliberates; “Arson?” someone echoes; “Aye, someone’s been arsin’ around.” There’s a “beware the moon” gag that’s worth the price of the DVD alone. Visual puns are everywhere, from Gromit’s graduation photograph (he went to Dogwart’s!) to a greenhouse being locked and alarmed by a keyfob as if it were a car.

There is something happening – some sly joke, or unexpected detail in the background – in every frame of ‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’. I’ve seen it now, I think, half a dozen times and I’m still spotting things anew. It’s Wallace & Gromit at their finest and earned Park perhaps the most well-deserved Oscar the Academy has yet bestowed.

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