An Oct. 2 article in Sunday Arts misidentified a technology used in the 2000 film "Chicken Run." The characters were created using stop-motion, not computer-generated, animation. (Published 10/5/2005)
They're just chunks of modeling clay -- or Plasticine, as the Brits would say -- yet Wallace and Gromit are a national treasure in England. Germans love them, too. Ditto for Australians, Swedes and Spaniards. Japanese schoolgirls send fan mail to their creator, Nick Park, with manga-style pictures of the animated duo.
Is there a sentient being out there who isn't charmed by W&G?
That's the question for Aardman studios, the English animation house that created them, and DreamWorks, the American studio that financed the stop-motion twosome's first feature-length film, "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," which opens Friday.
For those unfamiliar with W&G lore, Wallace is a genial, cheese-snacking homebody from the north of England who isn't exactly the sharpest thumbtack on the bulletin board. His dog, Gromit, an almost-human pooch with facial expressions to rival Buster Keaton's, is the brains. The relationship between a dumpy, middle-aged Brit and his dog may not sound like the animation bait to lure kids away from their GameCubes, but DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press says children aren't the studio's target. It's Mom and Dad.
"It's a much easier sell if the parents are interested," says Press, who adds that ebullient early reviews of the G-rated movie are vital to its success. "Parents pay attention to reviews. A don't-miss-this-movie message from critics really resonates with them."
That "Were-Rabbit," made for $30 million, according to some estimates, is putty-friendly rather than computer-generated is actually an advantage, she asserts. "There's something completely charming and reassuring about the hand-made quality of the movie that parents gravitate towards." Indeed, another recent stop-motion film, "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride," was the No. 2 box office draw in its first week of wide release.
Though they may not have the household recognition of Mickey and Minnie (or even Buzz and Woody), the Wallace and Gromit short films have a cult following in the United States, with 5 million DVDs sold in the 1990s. They've also aired on PBS and the Cartoon Network. Then there are the statuettes: The three W&G shorts, "A Grand Day Out," "A Close Shave" and "The Wrong Trousers," were nominated for Oscars for Best Animated Short Film. The last two won; "Grand Day" lost out to Park's other entry, "Creature Comforts."
"We're not beginning from ground zero," says Press. "They have had a life here in the U.S."
Still, how do you make a $100 million hit out of something co-writer and -director Park describes as a "vegetarian horror movie"? In "Were-Rabbit," Wallace and Gromit are asked to protect a small town from night-raiding rabbits who chomp people's prized vegetables. How is a story poking fun at the English obsession with horticulture going to play in the fast-paced land of "The Incredibles"?
Their Englishness is part of the charm, says DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who jetted regularly across the Atlantic to oversee the production of "Were-Rabbit" at Aardman's base in Bristol, England. American audiences at test screenings "are clearly enjoying the film a lot," he says. At last month's Toronto Film Festival, "no movie received better response. They laughed at every joke. They were rolling in the aisles. The cultural differences were almost none."
Park, in Washington recently to promote "Were-Rabbit," describes his movie as "defiantly British." He says he's always looking for "small things that normally aren't cool but you make them cool by putting them in the right context. Cheese isn't a particularly cool subject. Or knitting. Or tea and tea cozies. But I'm doing what I find funny."
To fans, this stuff is funny, including Wallace's obsession with his favorite cheese, Wensleydale. Parks says the British-based Wensleydale Creamery informed him that the movie prompted an upturn in sales, saving it from financial collapse. (In the new film, Wallace switches to Stinking Bishop, an actual brand that Parks obtained permission to use: "It certainly stinks, I can tell you. It smelt like about a dozen pairs of socks I've worn for a month and left in my fridge.")
Park has refused to Americanize the film, he says, with one exception. Gromit had been nurturing a prize "marrow," a British word for squash. Because this confused American test audiences, the filmmakers agreed to redub it. But the only M-word they could find was "melon." (Luckily for Aardman, the clay marrow does an excellent imitation of a watermelon.)
DreamWorks has further reason for guarded optimism: Its past partnership with Aardman (and Pathe Pictures) resulted in 2000's "Chicken Run," which Park co-directed and which took in more than $100 million in the States. A sort of parody of "The Great Escape," it featured computer-generated chickens with thick British accents.
But it remains to be seen if "Were-Rabbit" can top the success of the animated DreamWorks feature "Shrek," which starred a Scottish-accented Mike Myers as the hitherto unknown title character. It grossed $268 million in 2001 and along the way attracted Burger King, Heinz, Baskin-Robbins (ever try the "Shrek Swirl"?), Chevron and others to pony up more than $100 million in "partner support." The sequel fared even better, grossing $436 million last year, the third-highest box office success of all time. "Shrek 3," slated for 2007, will be the first movie to benefit from DreamWorks' just-announced two-year worldwide marketing relationship with McDonald's.
Burger King heads the list of tie-in partners for "Were-Rabbit," according to Press. Prepare for Halloween buckets, glowing Wallace and Gromit heads for shoelaces, and a flashlight on a ring that creates a Gromit silhouette. (Additional partners include McFarlane Toys, Penguin Books and Konami, which will release a "Were-Rabbit" video game developed by Aardman.)
DreamWorks hasn't "been able to get as many licensees on board as 'Shrek,' " says Aardman marketing head Sean Clarke, who oversees every aspect of Aardman's merchandising. " 'Shrek' didn't have as much success as 'Shrek 2.' But there were more licensees for the sequel. When the product's quirky and has no history, you don't get as many partners."
In other words, follow the cheese. The money will follow.