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"Wallace & Gromit": 24-Carrot Filmmaking

Stop-motion animation has never achieved the same popular success as the hand-drawn variety. Its painstaking production, which involves photographing small models moving in miniscule increments a frame at a time, would drive away all but the most dedicated filmmakers, and the days of shooting to obtain mere minutes of film demand patience well beyond the capacity of the average person.

Thankfully, Nick Park is one of those careful and eternally patient filmmakers, and with his latest movie, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, he cements his place alongside such stop-motion masters as Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. The film is also sure to satisfy the burgeoning international fanbase of the hapless and lovable Wallace and his faithful and long-suffering dog Gromit as the two become full-fledged feature film stars after three award-winning short films.

In this latest outing, Wallace and Gromit have moved into the humane garden pest removal business, putting their Rube Goldberg gadgets to work catching rabbits drawn to the king-sized vegetables grown for the Tottington annual giant vegetable competition. Soon, however, the monster vegetables come under assault from a comparably sized monster rabbit, with a surprising secret of his own. And with that, we’re off to the races.

The initial impulse when watching Curse of the Were-Rabbit is simply to marvel at the technical improvements made since Aardman’s last film, Chicken Run. The enthralling story soon overwhelm the impulse to gawk, however. Like Pixar (and sadly unlike many others in the animation business), Aardman recognizes that technology in itself will not change boring and unfunny characters into interesting and humorous ones. Park’s strong storytelling skills transform the lumps of plasticine clay into what seem like real living, breathing characters with charms and quirks of their own. In this instance the sheer technical mastery and attention to detail that characterize stop-motion animation at its best is delightfully subsumed by a well-crafted narrative and well-defined, endearing characters.

That doesn’t mean the film’s any mean technical feat, however. Considering that the filmmakers averaged 5 seconds of film per week during production, it is astounding to see chases and fights that possess such speed and urgency, and are infinitely better choreographed and filmed than most of the fast-cut music video messes that pollute the screen. The action sequences manage to acheive an equilibrium, generating a sense of visual pandemonium that never slips into incoherent chaos.

Peter Sallis, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ralph Fiennes, and the rest of the human voice cast are all splendid, delivering their lines and some truly horrible puns with wonderful aplomb and comedic timing. However, the movie truly belongs to the dog. Gromit is more expressive than any number of today’s Hollywood actors, ranking with Harpo Marx, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton as one of cinema’s truly great silent comedians. It is truly a marvel to see the range of emotion Gromit can communicate through eye movements and the occasional crinkled nose. Supposedly, Gromit has lines in the screenplay, which are never spoken and used only by the animators to drive Gromit’s performance. They have done their job marvelously, and Gromit’s delivery is pitch perfect and dryly humorous.

Beyond their mastery of stop-motion’s unique challenges, it also helps that the Aardman crew truly understand how to make a great film. They have learned the lessons of Hitchcock, as well as Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws and the better Alien movie installments, to generate suspense and draw the audience in to the on-screen events. Homage is also paid to King Kong and the 1930′s Paramount monster movies through gentle spoofing and cherry-picking the best that those classic films have to offer. Their predilection for awful puns may induce groans or giggles, but there are many genuine laughs to be obtained. Some of these are surprisingly off-color, drawing laughter from the adults while sailing comfortably over the heads of the younger audience members.

In light of the movie’s considerable charms, it seems ungrateful to point out that the plot twists can be seen from miles away, and that the climactic ending sequence doesn’t quite achieve the same manic energy as the train chase sequence at the end of “The Wrong Trousers” or Gromit’s aerial aerobatics in “A Close Shave.” Neither of these quibbling points detracts from another truly grand day out with Wallace and Gromit. Nick Park and Aardman have once again given us a smashing good adventure with his two clay creations, and the only real downside is the inevitable long wait for their next film.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is in theaters now.

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