Only in Great Britain could Chief Justice Mike Jackson's review be described as "cracking."
Something wicked this way hops.
I remember when I was a kid, my family would go to the county fair. We'd go through the animal exhibit, which for us city slickers was about as close as we'd get to horses and cows and…uh…those furry white things. Sheep, yeah. They'd cut the white stuff—okay, it's called wool—off the sheep, and these ladies would pass it through these wheel thingies—a spinning wheel, who knew?—and make yarn. If you were really lucky, you could watch them pass it through the loom to make fabric. It was so quaint, so hopelessly outdated when you just knew that there's factories somewhere that could take wool by the baleful and pass it through massive machinery to make fabric of higher quality and consistency than the little old ladies from the local Grange. And yet there they were, shearing and spinning and looming. (Wait, do they call it "looming"? That sure sounds ominous.)
What's my point? Old art forms never die. New technology may supplant them. They may become quaint and old-fashioned. They may be practiced today simply for the sake of keeping them alive. But they never die.
Facts of the Case
Wallace is an inventor. His crazy contraptions often get him into more trouble than the problem they're designed to solve. Gromit is his dog. He's the real brains behind the duo. They've traveled to the moon, thwarted a jewel-nabbing penguin, and saved a flock of sheep from a meaty fate. Now they've formed a company, Anti-Pesto, to humanely rid the town of a bunny infestation.
Except, they're not really getting rid of the bunnies so much as they're boarding them in their basement, and they're running out of room. Wallace has the "brilliant" idea to combine his two latest contraptions—the BV6000, a giant vacuum that sucks the rabbits right out of the ground, and the Mind Manipulation-omatic, which "extracts unwanted thoughts and desires." He hooks up the mind control device to the vacuum to blow his vegetable-hating thoughts into the rabbits, and it works perfectly—the rabbits despise veges, they're released into the wild, and the movie's over.
Oh, wait, no it's not.
It all goes wrong. A bunny gets sucked up into the thought-transfer tube. The bunny starts wearing sweater vests and lusting for cheese, while Wallace eats anything green and leafy. Meanwhile, the bunny situation has gone from bad to worse—now there's a giant rabbit devouring entire garden patches at once. Can Anti-Pesto stop the "were-rabbit" before the ersatz villain, Lord Victor Quartermaine, has it in his gunsights?
You can thank—or blame—the success story that is Pixar for that. Toy Story showed the potential, both artistic and commercial, that could be found by letting computers perform the tedious work of animation. After all, it's a painstaking process, creating hundreds of thousands of individual shots to comprise a complete motion picture. Letting computers do the heavy lifting was the perfect next step in the evolution of the animation art form. Toy Story marked the beginning of the end of the old way of drawing picture or moving around little models. Warner Bros. disbanded their animation department. After the dismal failure of Titan A.E., so did Fox. Even Disney, the stalwarts of the animation trade, announced that 2004's Home on the Range would be their last cel-drawn animated film. Instead, they all followed Pixar's pied piping and traded their art boards for Maya workstations. They've all found varying levels of success. Fox made lots of dough off of Ice Age and Robots. Disney's Chicken Little was a minor success. And relative film industry newcomer DreamWorks printed their own money with Shrek (and its sequel) and Shark Tale. That's not to say DreamWorks hasn't made forays into other animation forms. They've made the occasional traditionally animated film, like The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado. But what's truly special is their distribution deal with Aardman Animation, for that's what we're celebrating in this review. But first, an ode to the dying art form they champion: stop-motion animation.
Like all other forms of animation, stop-motion works its magic by filming single shots that move, ever so subtly, from frame to frame to give the illusion of movement when played back at 24 frames per second. Unlike other forms of animation, stop-motion films physical objects rather than drawings. That broadens the art form's uses, since it can animate anything from blobs of clay to frightfully accurate models of moving things, real or imaginary. It was used for special effects in live action films for decades, from bringing King Kong to life in the 1930s, to master Ray Harryhausen's skeleton armies of Jason and the Argonauts in the 1960s, to Phil Tippett bringing models as close to perfection as possible in the original, unaltered Star Wars trilogy in the 1970s and '80s. But, with the computer-generated effects revolution of the 1990s, stop-motion models went the way of the zoetrope. In the '50s and '60s, it was popularly used for cheap kids TV productions, like Gumby and a string of Rankin-Bass holiday productions, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Oddly, it would be its use in television commercials in the 1980s that would keep it in the public's consciousness. Will Vinton was the king of "claymation" TV ads, producing the memorable California Raisins and Pizza Hut's Noid. Henry Selick breathed life into the Pillsbury Doughboy, made Ritz crackers surf in cheese on the moon, and made award-winning promos for MTV. He'd win greater fame by bringing stop-motion to the big screen as the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and Monkeybone. But alas, stop-motion animation is a dying art form, considering its look can be neatly recreated in CG without the time and expense of creating and filming puppets. Virtually the only studios keeping it alive are Laika Entertainment—originally founded by Will Vinton, renamed after he was ousted by owner Phil Knight; they were the animation house responsible for Tim Burton's Corpse Bride and they're now the home of Henry Selick—and Aardman Animation.
Aardman Animation is a British company, a sensibility that shines through all their work. It was founded in 1976 by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, and produced animated bits for the BBC. Nick Park joined the studio in 1985, bringing with him his two greatest creations, Wallace and Gromit. He'd make three short films featuring the duo—A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, and A Close Shave (the latter two of which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short)—as well as smaller productions with the duo and a classic short, Creature Comforts (which also won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, and has since been turned into an ongoing series). Aardman partnered with DreamWorks to bring their talents to the big screen on an international scale. The first of five planned films was Chicken Run, co-directed by Nick Park and Peter Lord. US audiences embraced the distinctive art and British humor, making it a certified blockbuster to the tune of $106 million. The second film in their partnership is the subject of this review: Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
The Wallace and Gromit shorts all contained a simple plot, which translates well to The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: Wallace would build some crazy contraption, it would get him into trouble, and Gromit would have to bail him out. In A Grand Day Out, it was a rocket that took the duo to the moon (to bring home some cheese, natch), where they were thwarted by a parking meter robot (see what I mean about the British humor?). In The Wrong Trousers, it was the "Techno-Trousers," robotic pants that make Wallace complicit in a jewel heist. In A Close Shave, Wallace's invention—an automatic sheep-shearing machine—is tangential to the actual invention causing the problems, a robotic dog. In Were-Rabbit, the unholy marriage of a massive vacuum and a mind-control machine produces an unholy monster: the titular rabbit. There's a strong bond between Wallace and Gromit, captured perfectly in the opening credits, which pan over a series of photographs of the two. We see them in action, capturing rabbits, and while it's obvious Wallace is the de facto leader, it's only because he talks—Gromit's the real brains of the duo, and the only one who accomplishes anything. Of course, he'll always be the one to bail out his master, but here the stakes are higher, yet in a way that I probably shouldn't reveal but you can probably guess. Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. It's rife with allusions to werewolf mythology and the films built upon it, from moonlight bringing out the monster (though, according to the calendar in the film, the full moon lasts for about two weeks) to it being destroyed by a bullet…a 24-carat bullet (groan). That's balanced with the low-key charm that Park brings to all his work. His films are akin to the collected works of Pixar, and not at all like what you usually see from DreamWorks. I associate DreamWorks's films with crass consumerism, pop-culture references that will surely date their films, and a pervading cynicism and mean-spiritedness that saps the fun away. Pixar's films, on the other hand, are crassly commercial (look at all the tie-ins, and their three biggest films have been based on toys and comic book heroes—duh, of course they're commercial!), but are more timeless in their appeal and more sweet-natured. They're about friendship, fun, and love—commodities that are hard to find in the piss-off, me-first attitude of Shrek and its brethren. Park's films have the same innocence and wide-eyed wonder for the world around them. It's refreshing and uplifting without being treacly. I like that.
But good grief, why all this talk of stop motion animation? Well, it's simple really. What you get in Curse of the Were-Rabbit is old-fashioned entertainment. Its pace is more sedate, its values more friendly. The art style in which it's told—an antiquated, irrelevant means of producing movies—is key to bringing the story to life, because you absolutely could not reproduce the charm of Wallace and Gromit with paints or pixels. Their souls—and make no mistake, these characters have souls—are inexorably connected with the Plasticene that gives them form. If ever a movie could make you long for the good old days at the picture show, this is it. I wish all movies could be this joyous.
Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer flawlessly captures the intricate details of the puppets and their surroundings while preserving the soft look characteristic of the W&G series. The Dolby Digital audio—available in either 5.1 or 2.0 surround—is lively and makes use of all channels effectively. Extras consist of:
• Commentary Track: Nick Park and Steve Box give you a typically British commentary—in other words, very low-key, rather dry, but with moments of great wit.
• Deleted Scenes: Ten scenes that last about 13 minutes (though, curiously, one of them seems to loop over and over; I'm sure there's some difference between the shots, but darned if I know what it is), with optional commentary by Park and Box. Some of the scenes are animated storyboards rather than completed footage, but there's a surprising amount of the latter—this is an time-consuming and expensive process, and I'm sure it was excruciating to cut this much completed animation. Of particular note is an extended opening to the film, as well as several proposed endings (I think the one they opted to use was best). Oh, and the Anti-Pesto theme song, a Woody Guthriesque folk ditty, which was mercifully cut.
• How Wallace & Gromit Went to Hollywood: This 20-minute documentary follows the entire history of W&G, from very early rough animation that Nick Park did while in college (A Grand Day Out was his graduation project), to the early history of Aardman Animation, to the partnership between DreamWorks and Aardman, and finally to Curse of the Were-Rabbit. It's quite an enjoyable piece.
• "Behind the Scenes" Featurettes: "Behind the Curse of the Were-Rabbit," "A Day in the Life at Aardman," and "How to Build a Bunny" add up to about another 25 minutes behind the scenes of making the film. "Behind" is more promotional in nature. "A Day in the Life" follows "Vinnie" (he says he's an assistant director, but I can't find his name on IMDb) around the Aardman studio, looking at the various jobs that people perform making such a film. And finally, "How to Build a Bunny" looks on as one of the model makers builds one of the thousands of model bunnies necessary to make the film.
• Stage Fright: Steve Box's 1997 short film, along with commentary. It's an 11-minute film about a stunted vaudeville dog juggler who lost his popularity with the advent of the moving picture. A silent-film actor takes advantage of the juggler and his tiny, trained dogs to wild success on the silver screen, while the juggler is forced to train the dogs for him. In a word: depressing. (Curiously, it's presented in nonanamorphic widescreen.)
• "The Family Album": Your usual barrage of posters, photos, storyboards, et cetera.
On a menu item labeled "DWK" (for DreamWorks Kids), you'll find the following suitable for the pint-sized set:
• Cracking Contraptions: Three of the super-short W&G shorts that highlight a particular invention. All the mini-eps are collected separately, so this is something of a teaser.
• Games and Activities: My three-year-old wasn't interested. Neither was I.
Be careful when shopping for Curse of the Were-Rabbit at your favorite brick and mortar. DreamWorks has produced two versions of the disc, nearly identical save for the full-frame or widescreen presentations. There's two clues on the box. One is on the front cover; look for the tiny words in the lower right-hand corner that nearly blend in with Richard Corliss's glowing quote. The other is buried in the small line of disc specs on the back; look for the words "Theatrical Aspect Ratio."
If Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit were simply a reminder of art forms past, then it would hardly be worthy of a raving recommendation. It takes more than that to make something entertaining. Were Ed Wood and The Man Who Wasn't There worthy films because they were the rare films released in black and white? No, they're worth watching for their stories, their acting, their writing. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit may be a fine reminder of the magic of stop-motion animation, but there's so much more to it—lovable characters, fun situations, and a story that can be enjoyed by all. By all means, add this disc to your collection, now!
As I was in the middle of writing this review, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film. While I don't put a lot of stock into the decisions of the Academy voters, this is one award that I felt was truly deserved. That's saying something, considering its competition was Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. While I really wanted Corpse Bride to win—after all, Tim Burton is my favorite director—I wasn't disappointed in the slightest with this choice.
Not guilty. Now bring me some Wensleydale!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Directors Nick Park and Steve Box
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