Huzzah, hooray, 'tis here: "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" arrives in theaters today, and not a moment too soon for fans of a dotty English inventor named Wallace and his dog and intellectual superior, Gromit, both of whom happen to be made of modeling clay.
"Were-Rabbit," directed by animators Nick Park and Steve Box, is Wallace and Gromit's feature-film debut, and a long-awaited one since the duo appeared in their first short film in 1989. They've garnered legions of ever-more-fervent fans, who will no doubt be quite pleased with their heroes' big-screen splash. They've gone a bit high-tech -- Park and Box reportedly used hundreds of computerized effects in the film -- but they're still the same old W&G, right down to the barely discernible thumbprints on their faces.
"Were-Rabbit" opens with the team busy working at yet another ingenious business, a concern called "Anti-Pesto," which humanely removes four-legged creatures from the little town's vegetable gardens. And the stakes are unusually high as the villagers -- including Gromit -- are lovingly preparing their produce to compete in the annual vegetable growing contest. Things are just swell until one of Wallace's schemes -- involving a gizmo that "extracts unlovely thoughts and desires" -- goes awry and the gardens are soon being vandalized by the King Kong of rabbits, a monster that only the clear-thinking Gromit can vanquish.
Although Wallace and Gromit are familiar only to those lucky enough to have seen their short films, many more filmgoers are familiar with Park from his work on "Chicken Run," the delightful 2000 family comedy that used Plasticine and cheeky British humor to similar effect. If that film was a parody of "Stalag 17," "The Great Escape" and other classic jailbreak capers, "Curse of the Were-Rabbit" takes off on those classic Universal monster movies of legend and lore, wherein werewolves, mummies and Frankenstein's monster terrorized filmgoers with kitschy glee.
As a genre exercise, it's quite suitable to the Halloween season. But the real attractions in "Curse of the Were-Rabbit" are to be found not in the monster or in the threadbare plot to foil his tuber-chomping deeds, but in the visual and verbal puns, Rube Goldbergesque contraptions and memorable supporting characters that can be counted on in every W&G enterprise. Best gadget: the Bunny-Vac 6000, which whooshes little rabbits up out of their holes and into a glass globe, where they float with hilariously bemused expressions.
Also on hand are Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes, both terrific sports at voicing the sweet-natured, vegetable-loving Lady Tottington and the gun-toting toff Victor Quartermaine, who competes with Wallace for her affections.
But as ever, the chief reason to see "Curse of the Were-Rabbit" is the little dog who never utters a sound. Perhaps the most expressive silent star since Buster Keaton, Gromit's every facial move -- every grimace, scowl, eye-roll and glance askance -- is sublime as he plays the wise, clear-thinking Teller to Wallace's pixilated Penn.
Reportedly it took Park and Box five years to make "Curse of the Were-Rabbit" through an exacting process the filmmakers have compared to building the Great Wall of China with matchsticks. The result is a monument indeed to a notion that has been otherwise forgotten in an accelerated world: Good things take time.
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (85 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G.