THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Did you know that you can make a movie using just a camera and some Play-Doh? This animation process is more technically known as “Claymation” and it involves creating clay models, which are then manipulated and photographed one frame at a time, creating the illusion of movement. The California Raisins were created though this process. So was Chicken Run. For that matter, so were Nick Park’s acclaimed Wallace and Gromit shorts, two of which even won Oscars for Best Animated Short Feature. The characters make their feature-length debut inWallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

The story revolves around a wacky inventor named Wallace and his canine assistant Gromit. The duo is now running Anti-Pesto, a pest control company that uses humane techniques to capture rabbits that are invading local gardens. Their newest client is Lady Tottington (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter), who lives in a gigantic mansion and organizes an annual contest to see who can produce the largest vegetable. (It is a contest Gromit hopes to finally win.) Tottie – as she is known – has a yard infested with rabbits. Wallace and Gromit arrive with their “Bun-Vac” in tow. This invention harmlessly sucks the bunnies out of the ground and into a special container. Tottie’s would-be suitor, Victor Quartermaine (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), scoffs at this approach. He’d rather take a gun and blow the bunnies to smithereens. Fortunately, Tottie is enough of an animal lover to keep him from doing anything of the sort.

One night, Wallace combines the Bun-Vac with a mind-control machine he also created. The idea is to take away the rabbits’ desire to eat vegetables. A misfire instead causes the creation of the Were-Rabbit, a hulking lupine who ravages the town with his insatiable appetite for veggies. It’s kind of a cross between the Easter Bunny and King Kong. Having unleashed the creature on the town, Wallace and Gromit have to find a way to stop it or else Tottie’s contest will have to be scrapped. Of course, Victor thinks he has the perfect solution…

Watching the Claymation technique is kind of interesting; during close-ups, you can see fingerprints on the clay used to mold the characters. Nevertheless, the process allows for a distinctly unusual look. The film is animated, yet the characters clearly take up three-dimensions in their environment. Moving the figures slightly and shooting them a frame at a time creates movement, but not fluid movement. As opposed to CGI animation, which strives for realistic textures and motion fluidity, Claymation makes the slight unreality a part of its style. Some of the fun comes from the wild, surreal visuals. (Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas used also used stop-motion techniques, but not with clay characters.)

It helps to have likeable characters. Wallace is one of those guys who might be classified as “book smart, life dumb.” He’s a master inventor who is somewhat clueless in real life. Gromit, on the other hand, is the smartest, most perceptive dog this side of Lassie. Interestingly, Gromit has no mouth so all his communicating comes via his eyes, which perpetually convey a sense of grave concern. (This itself is a pretty funny joke.)

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit does some amusing things with its concept. I really enjoyed the title creature. That big hulk of a bunny is definitely an amusing sight. There are little touches too. When one character sticks a pitchfork through Tottie’s hair, she puts band-aids over the entry points. Later on, there’s an extended sequence that mimics King Kong, with the Were-Rabbit grabbing Tottie and scaling a building. This kind of cleverness always grabs my attention.

Wallace and Gromit have achieved a significant degree of popularity through their short films, which are available on video and DVD. Although I was familiar with them as an entity, I don’t believe I had ever seen any of their previous movies. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is satisfying family entertainment that will please fans and newbies alike. I think the movie does lack the consistent hilarity and invention of other recent animated features like “The Incredibles” or “Shrek.” Those pictures inspire multiple viewings because they’re so jam-packed with imagination. This one isn’t on the same level, but it’s still worth seeing. Wallace and Gromit are undoubtedly charming and their adventure is fun for all ages.

( out of four)

Note: Playing before the feature is a delightful 10-minute Christmas cartoon featuring the penguins from Madagascar. It's very funny stuff.

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is rated G. The running time is 1 hour and 25 minutes.

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