Mind-bogglingly elaborate yet undeniably cute, five years in the making yet utterly timeless, “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” finally comes to the big screen, and it’s a complete delight.
The stars of the Academy Award-winning clay-animated shorts “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave” — and the hardworking team behind them — come into their own in their first feature-length film, and prove that they’re at the height of their creative powers.
The result is very much of the unique W&G universe, featuring the sweetly clueless, veddy British inventor Wallace and his best friend, the silent Gromit, a dog who does more with one raised eyebrow than most of us could do with full command of the English language.
Fans of the shorts will be happy to see that all the duo’s familiar timesaving contraptions are in place, including the levers and pulleys that hoist Wallace from his bed in the morning, drop him downstairs to the breakfast table and dress him in his trademark knit green vest and tie. Wallace (voiced with the usual perfect timing and innocence by Peter Sallis) always asks politely for his beloved cheese, even though the well-meaning Gromit has him on a strict diet.
But “Curse of the Were-Rabbit” is also a loving homage to the classic monster movies of decades past. Directors Nick Park and Steve Box, working from a script they co-wrote with Bob Baker and Mark Burton (“Madagascar”), don’t just evoke images of Jekyll and Hyde, the Werewolf and King Kong. They also seem to understand truly the torment that such creatures suffer.
The dreaded Were-Rabbit tears his way through the meticulous vegetable gardens in Wallace and Gromit’s neighborhood by moonlight, grabbing carrots and cucumbers with his enormous, furry paws and shoving them into his maw, then chomping down with giant teeth in vicious glee. But really, all he wants is a hug.
The filmmakers infuse just as much sympathy and humanity into the people who populate the film, though they’ve frequently left their own fingerprints on the chunky clay to provide an intentionally roughhewn charm, something that was lacking in Park’s slicker, dazzling “Chicken Run” from 2000.
As co-proprietors of the “Anti-Pesto” pest control company, Wallace and Gromit have been entrusted with the safety of the biggest and most beautiful produce in town as the annual Giant Vegetable Contest approaches. (Security systems include yard gnomes and lasers.)
The most rampant problem is the proliferation of bunny rabbits, who burrow and destroy everything their pinky noses can sniff out. Wallace has come up with a Bun-Vac, which sucks the rabbits from their holes and into a glass container (and they look adorably ridiculous floating around in there, their ears askew, their eyes wide with confusion.)
The Bun-Vac becomes especially useful at the estate of Lady Tottingham, the blue blood who’s hosting the veggiepalooza. (Helena Bonham Carter spiritedly voices her second stop-motion animation character this year, following her starring role in “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.”)
Totty, as her friends call her, favors the humane removal of fuzzy creatures from her property, and so does Wallace — which provides an instant spark between these two awkward figures. But her would-be suitor, the devious huntsman Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), would rather take them out with a shotgun, accompanied by his loyal, snarling bulldog (but come on, even he’s cute).
None of these approaches is any match for the beastly Were-Rabbit, and here’s where Park, Box and a cast of thousands marry the detailed puppetry of clay animation with lighting, camera angles and editing to create scenes that are truly filmic.
One night, Gromit chases after the monster while driving the Anti-Pestomobile. He lassoes him and is dragged through garden after garden, above ground and below, dirt and cauliflower flying in all directions. It’s so thrilling and complex — so fast, funny and clever — you forget you’re watching the product of days of painstaking handiwork and just get sucked into the moment.
Other smaller, quieter details are just as impressive. Totty invites Wallace over to her estate and offers him afternoon tea as they sit among the gourds in her secret, rooftop garden. She pours from a teapot into a cup — no big deal, right? Until you realize, whoa — they’ve figured out a way to believably simulate liquid flowing from one container to another, and it’s all made of clay!
It’s that combination of big and small, elaborate and intimate, that makes “Curse of the Were-Rabbit” frighteningly good fun.