“Kiss my artichoke!”
Monster-bunnies have been few and far between in the cinema - well, there's the one that decapitates the knight Bors in Monty Python And The Holy Grail and, of course, the shlock-fest stupidity of an unleashed horde of mutated carrot-munchers in the abysmal Night Of The Lepus (1972) - but Nick Park and Steve Box have sought to redress the balance in their latest feature, the first big screen outing for Northern heroes, Wallace and Gromit, in The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. After five long years in the making - can you imagine it, five years - the end result of Aardman's painstaking labour-of-love is a stop-motion animation splendour, a huge homage-rife send-up of werewolf pics (my favourite beast in Horrordom's menagerie, by far) from the fogbound days of Universal to the air-bladder-busting creations of American Werewolf and The Howling and, most importantly, a glorious extension to the inimitable Wallace and Gromit canon of work. But the best, and most unique, thing of all is that the makers have resolutely clung to the provincial Northern England setting and low-brow mentality that is the signature charm of these two distinctive characters, despite having the mighty Dreamworks backing the project. They managed it effortlessly with the tremendous Chicken Run, as well, but that did have the vocal talent of Mel Gibson to reassure the American Midwest that they were still on safe ground. Here, thankfully, there are no such concessions to hands across the pond, with themes, jokes and a roster of characters culled implicitly from around the Yorkshire Dales.
“If you ask me, this was arson ... arsin' around!”
The plot sees our two familiar heroes, man and dog and inventors both, cleaning up the town of vermin - namely rabbits - under the title of Anti-Pesto, a SWAT-inspired venture that sees the duo equipped with an incredible array of gadgetry (the patented Bunny-Sucker is pure inspired lunacy), and becoming embroiled in the mystery of a strange creature rumoured to be a Were-Rabbit that is prowling around and threatening to wreck the Annual Giant Vegetable Competition up at Lady Tottington's manor. Having already made a name for themselves with fast and effective service among the allotments, greenhouses and back gardens, Wallace and Gromit put the icing on the cake by keeping the delinquent bunnies in pens in their cellar and seeking to rehabilitate them via a bizarre brain-washing device called the Mind-o-Matic, to wean them off their addiction to fresh vegetables. Of course, in the firm tradition of mad scientists and warped experiments since the dawn of the horror film, the mind-altering process is sure to go hideously wrong. Using lunar power harnessed in his contraption from the full moon, Wallace attempts to transfer his renowned craving for cheese to captured rabbit Hutch resulting in the deranged vision of a Wallace/rabbit cranial conjunction and leaving the two subjects with radically altered personalities and each other's voracious traits. The Mind-o-Matic is very reminiscent of Edward Nigma's similar brain-wave device from Batman Forever but check out the mesmerised bunnies floating in the sea of Wallace's cheesy thoughts for a much better visual representation of its capabilities. It's giving nothing away to say that there will very soon be a real Were-Rabbit on the loose and it will, once again, fall to the resilient and loyal Gromit to save his master and the day.
“Burrowing bounders ... they must be breeding like ... well, rabbits.”
The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit attempts to walk that fine line between chills and chuckles that has tripped up many before it but, in my opinion, it succeeds enormously. We have incredible prowling camerawork that sweeps along the streets and over the garden fences, creating an eerie Hammer Horror vibe. The fleeting glimpses of a huge floppy-eared beast amid the curling ground mist and the suggestive shadow-play are brilliantly atmospheric and the scene of a transformed Hutch first breaking free from his pen inspires a Gremlins-ish sense of anticipation and dread from the other rabbits as they look on in fear. The harking back to the horrors of old also sees to it that we have creepy graveyards, arcane books on evil (I'm not counting Wallace's cheese library - Fromage To Eternity, anyone?) and angry, garden-implement-wielding villagers on the rampage. But the screenplay by Park, Box and others, juggles the horror element with a steady stream of sight gags and a thick slice of often Ealing-style comedy that keeps the whole thing bubbling along with determined gusto and a steadfastly British gusto, at that. The concessions made towards a new audience are in place with many familiar sights from the original three shorts, such as the boundless modifications made to their house - it literally has a lever or a button for every occasion - and the trademark breakfast and dressing routines seeking to introduce the odd couple. But these moments are essential to the world of Wallace and Gromit anyway and there is no shame in repeating the inventive ridiculousness of it all. The special cosiness of this plasticene world and its hysterically lip-curling entourage is still marvellously welcome, and the bigger canvas upon which this new adventure is painted does nothing to diffuse the classic homespun quality that smothers the proceedings like melted cheese on toast.
“Nightie-night, me lovelies!”
The cast are uniformly excellent. Peter Sallis is on fine form as Wallace, as is only to be expected. But the likes of Helena Bonham Carter as Lady “Totty” Tottington really throws herself into the role with abandon, too, and clearly has a ball with her upper-class muppet. Check out the smutty innuendo-laden way in which she shows off her giant prized carrot to a mouth-watering Wallace. Ralph Fiennes also hurls any lingering pretensions to the wind as he sucks the marrow out of his role as the dastardly Victor Quatermaine, would-be suitor for Lady Tottington, creating a wonderfully aristocratic villain along the lines of the venomous Sir Henry Baskerville. The running gag about his toupee has a great pay-off when it is literally blown from his head in the roar of the Were-Rabbit - an image that never ceases to crease me up. Peter Kay crops up to voice the local copper, PC Mackintosh, but his input is fairly limited. Nicholas Smith as the Rev. Clement Hedges is much better value. Looking like a cross between Ernest Thesiger's Dr. Pretorius from The Bride Of Frankenstein and Senator Palpatine from Star Wars Episodes 1-3, the Rev. provides many great quips as the only one who knows the true heritage of the beast. It's all there in his Observer's Book Of Monsters, you see. It's got to be killed by a gold bullet ... all together now, a 24 carat gold bullet! But the main role, it has to be said, is once again that of Gromit who, even without the aid of a mouth, manages to emote and convey so much with only a pair of highly polished eyes at his disposal. Here, he truly runs the gamut of emotion, from his oft-used put-upon indifference to suspicion and horror, and from exasperation to courage and even to despair. Now that's some feat for a character that never utters a single word to have us understand exactly what he's feeling at any given time. The army of bunnies are a delight, as well, especially poor Hutch, who undergoes perhaps the most distressing transformation of all. I bet even a dose of mixamotosis would have been preferable to turning into Wallace.
“It's a veritable vegetable paradise!”
The big transformation is an absolute hoot, too, and certainly one of the standout sequences of the film. Paying reference to all those skin-bulging and limb-lengthening antics dished out so merrily by the likes of Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, the hideous change here features the stretching hand/paw combo from American Werewolf, the shoe-splitting and button-popping from The Incredible Hulk TV show and the explosive muscle gain from any number of the later CG fests, such as Van Helsing. And the monstrous brute at the end of it is no less astonishing for all his cute fur, buck-teeth and fluffy white tail. I love the absurdity of having him howl at the moon and then beat his chest King Kong-style, too. The moonlit field of bunnies in the distance striking up the call of the beast is another nice touch. In fact, the Kong referencing doesn't stop there, with a climactic climb to the top of Tottington Hall, ladylove grasped in hairy paw, thrown in for good measure. Then again, the whole shebang of stop-motion animation harks back to Willis O'Brien's magnificent ape opus, doesn't it? Thus, Curse is a riot of non-stop visual ingenuity, the filmic sleight of hand awesomely punctuated by the sublime characterisation, the sheer joy of the Northern accents and the broad brilliance of a small-scale story expertly enhanced with big time heroics. The imagery often serves up some splendid surrealism - the angelic glow surrounding Lady Totty's cheesy wotsit hairdo juxtaposed with the Devil's horns rising from Victor's head or the highly cinematic dogfight between Gromit and Victor's fang-faced mutt Philip in the exciting funfair-fuelled finale, and the efforts of Wallace to hide his impending transformation from his love - but it is the essence of sparkling wit and the devotion to unalloyed fun that mark Curse out as something special amid the plethora of animated movies hitting the screens these days. It doesn't carry a subversive streak or try to sledgehammer home a preachy moral, yet its innocent feel-good spontaneity still provides a charisma that is head and shoulders above most of the offerings out there posing as family fare.
“Ahh, the bounce has gone from his bungee.”
I must mention the terrific score by Julian Nott which literally springboards the movie into an altogether higher realm. It's a fun-packed work that mixes the playful jaunt of Wallace and Gromit's jovial brass band theme with grand action set-pieces and beautifully eerie mystery-laced motifs. Listen out for the cheeky riff on John Williams's score for Revenge Of The Sith when he employs a male choir to highlight Gromit's frantic subterranean pursuit of the beast. With Hans Zimmer producing and over-seeing the music, many of the cues are pounding and percussive and the film really benefits from having the full-on aggressive stance of an all-out bombastic approach. Chicken Run similarly employed a vast and rousing score that helped energise the movie, but it feels much more assured here in Curse.
“I have a hunch this'll be a night to remember.”
“I just have a hunch.”
I'd have liked a little more of the horror atmosphere to have permeated the film - sort of like Carry On Screaming ramped up the scare factor whilst keeping the farce on track as well - but, in the end, Park and Box have still achieved a glorious hybrid of mirth and mystery. A great film all round and one that is definitely more rewarding each time it is viewed, just like its predecessors. Very highly recommended indeed.
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