Clay animator Nick Park had a hit his first time at bat with his Oscar-winning 1989 immigrant-animals short Creature Comforts. His following shorts starring Wallace and Gromit, the cheese-addicted inventor and his mute genius dog, copped three more Oscar nominations and two wins. But his 2000 feature debut, the World War II POW jailbreak parody Chicken Run, for all its charms, failed to capture that W&G magic. Chickens can only take you so far.
Now, at last, Wallace and Gromit are full-on movie stars. Instead of sheep rustlers and gangsta penguins, they're contending with rabbits. Many hungry rabbits, threatening the north England vegetable-growing community led by Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter). Wallace's latest brainchild is the Bun-Vac 6000, a gizmo that sucks all the lagomorphs in the vicinity right out of their tunnels and into W&G's bunny-hunting truck. In marked contrast with the child-scaring action of Chicken Run, the bunnies go straight into W&G's basement back home for safekeeping, escaping occasionally to raid the refrigerator.
All is well until yet another Wallace invention, the Mind-O-Matic, wreaks inadvertent havoc, in the manner of all Wallace inventions. This time not even the omnicompetent Gromit can easily save the day. Wallace's hubristic attempt to brainwash rabbits out of their veggie sweet tooth backfires, unleashing a mysterious giant beast, the Were-Rabbit, who stalks the village by night, doing more damage than all the rest of the rabbits combined, shamelessly gobbling everything in sight, smashing greenhouses, and parodying everything from Frankenstein to Watership Down.
It's a far better story than Chicken Run, and not just because Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis, to the mild manner born) and Gromit are intrinsically funnier. The pacing is superior, and besides the thrill of the chase, we get the existential joys of a werewolf identity crisis and a dandy subplot about Wallace's rival as rabbit-hunter and candidate for Lady Tottington's dainty hand—the vain, wicked, toupeed, bunnicidal Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes). Victor plans to put a 24-carat bullet through the Were-Rabbit's enormous heart, assisted by his massively fanged henchman bulldog, the anti-Gromit.
Bonham Carter also stars in the other, infinitely more technically advanced stop-motion animation hit, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, but she's a snore in that, a scream in Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Burton's ambitiously intricate animation only calls attention to the remaining flaws—like the mouths that still don't quite work right. But Park's animation works precisely because of its intentionally winsome crudeness. It's not even crude, exactly, just insistent on its handmade quality. Bonham Carter's plummy upper-crust twit accent sounds funnier coming out of that doughy O of a mouth. And her character has more character than anyone in Corpse Bride. Burton is the opposite of Park—his storytelling is jerky and his visual technique is smooth. I say go for the guy who can tell a story, as Burton has failed to do for 11 years now.
I won't spoil the jokey surprise of the inevitable stinky cheese puns, nor reveal just how Victor's mutt and Gromit manage to conduct a World War I dogfight during the village's annual Giant Vegetable Competition while the Were-Rabbit makes like King Kong with Lady Tottington. Fans of Austin Powers and Calendar Girls can expect a couple of mild melon gags that I'll bet Wallace and Gromit never would have gotten near before they sold out to DreamWorks for funny money. But Gromit remains incorruptible, and Wallace lovably clueless. They may have hit the big time, but they haven't gone Hollywood. (G)