Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

As co-owners of their own vegetable protection agency, “Anti-Pesto,” inventor/cheese lover Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis) and his faithful “Silent Bob” like dog, Gromit, spend their days keeping the local rabbits out of the neighborhood. Looking to erase the desire for carrots out of the species, Wallace uses one of his contraptions to brainwash a furry test subject. Inadvertently, Wallace creates the “Were-Rabbit,” a monster bent on eating everything in sight during full moons. When a rival, Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), comes forward to kill the creature before the start of the local vegetable competition, Wallace and Gromit spring into action to erase the commotion they’ve caused.

I came to “Wallace & Gromit” with some trepidation, since I’d never partaken in the shorts that made Aardman Animation’s comic duo world famous, and I wasn’t convinced by the mediocre 2000 feature, “Chicken Run,” which took Aardman to the next level of success. “Were-Rabbit” is the first feature-length outing for the duo, and it gives Aardman a chance to enjoy their achievements with a movie that plays directly to their strengths.

After witnessing the art form slowly die out during my lifetime, it is a huge treat to have two pictures in theaters at the same time that use the stop-motion animation process. While not nearly as glossy and high-tech as Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride,” “Were-Rabbit” makes up for the lack of polish with heart, and an unquestionably bigger funny bone. The Aardman creative backbone of Nick Park and Steve Box are back in their Plasticine world of gadgets, cheese, and slapstick comedy, and the mix really shines in “Were-Rabbit.” This is an exceedingly fun picture, featuring dry English charms, bright comic invention, and a breath of horror that deep down, every kid loves.

And the film is gorgeous too. Park and Box are lunatics with detail, filling all the frames with inside jokes, colorful textured backgrounds, and deft, expressive animation on the characters. This being an English production, the filmmakers also take great pride in exaggerating every last embarrassing British body part, including huge ears and protruding teeth. “Corpse Bride” had the benefit of a Gothic production design, which gave it personality the script sometimes failed to include. “Were-Rabbit” embraces warmth and color, which enhances the already bouncing screenplay, while also diffusing the slightly dark overtones behind Victor’s hunting of the beast and the nightly Were-Rabbit rampages through the neighborhood. This is graceful, friendly entertainment, recommended for all ages, and probably includes the only testicle joke ever found in a G-rated feature film. That alone is enough to sing its praises.

Where I found the most fault in “Chicken Run” was in its endless pie factory climax; Park didn’t know when to quit there, and he’s learned to temper his madness in “Were-Rabbit,” which does feature an all-stops-pulled climax, but is decidedly more adventurous and comical. The miracle of the film is that it never grinds to a halt nor does it ever wear out its welcome. Park and Box even get away with a genuinely touching moment in the climax between Gromit and Wallace that’ll put an unexpected lump in your throat. When dealing essentially with lumps of clay, that’s some seriously accomplished storytelling at work to elicit that level of emotion.

While “Were-Rabbit” features a bevy of superb voicework (including Helena Bonham Carter as the object of Wallace’s desire), the film’s standout is Ralph Fiennes. In the role of an unwanted hero, Fiennes gives a fresh, comedic take on Victor’s hubris and eventual humiliation. Not one to find himself with a chance to play silly all that often, Fiennes works miracles with the character, and Park and Box take the lead and animate splendidly to match the inspired vocal performance.

For a big-screen debut, “The Curse of the Were Rabbit” is a lovely introduction to Wallace and Gromit, providing laughs and fun for both fans and newcomers to these peculiar two. I hope this adventure is the start of many to come.

Before the “Were-Rabbit” feature is “The Christmas Caper,” a short featuring the penguin characters from “Madagascar” as they share a Holiday adventure trying to save one of their own. While the idea of giving scene-stealing supporting characters the spotlight typically leads to irritation, the penguins prove here that they could support an entire film of their own; a rousing, hilarious CG animated bonanza of comic violence, holiday cheer, and familiar faces, the penguins vividly set the mood for “Were-Rabbit,” so don’t be late entering the theater or you’ll miss half of the fun.

Rating: A-
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