Saturday, October 2, 2021

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Note: This review contains spoilers for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Following Nick Park’s completion of A Grand Day Out in 1989 as a student short film while working at Aardman Animations, its popularity upon release spawned the Wallace & Gromit franchise, with two additional short films, The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995), to follow. As part of a multi-picture deal between Aardman and DreamWorks Animation that included 2000’s Chicken Run, a feature-length Wallace & Gromit movie, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, was released in 2005. However, a number of misguided attempts by DreamWorks Animation to make the movie sell better in America led to Aardman cutting the deal short after the release of Flushed Away in 2006. As a fan of the original Wallace & Gromit shorts since childhood, I was excited to see The Curse of the Were-Rabbit when it first came out, though in both the theater and on home video I, along with my family, had a bit of a mixed reaction to it. A little over 15 years later, we decided to revisit the movie in the spirit of the Halloween season and, while it turned out to be far better than we remembered, it still felt like a part of the series’ British charm was missing.

Days before the annual giant vegetable competition, Wallace (Peter Sallis) and Gromit run a pest control business known as Anti-Pesto in order to humanely protect people’s gardens from wild rabbits. One such client is Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter) of Tottington Hall, where the upcoming event is being hosted. In an attempt to find another way to control the rabbits’ eating habits, Wallace tries out his experimental Mind Manipulation-O-Matic on a fluffle of rabbits recently captured from Tottington Hall to get them to stop eating produce. However, the machine goes haywire when Wallace accidentally flips a switch on the machine. Despite this, it appears that the attempt was successful with one of the rabbits, though a new, mysterious threat known as a Were-Rabbit begins attacking peoples’ gardens in a way that Anti-Pesto is ill-equipped to handle.

Wallace & Gromit is no stranger to genre parody, and at times has included a fair amount of suspense in the original shorts, especially The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. As the movie is a horror-comedy, the suspense found in other well-made horror films is surprisingly well-executed here, particularly with the mystery of the titular Were-Rabbit’s identity. Once the identity of the monster is revealed, the movie plays on their slow transformation into the Were-Rabbit and the measures taken in an attempt to curb or stop it.

The movie also excels in the comedy department, with lots of clever references and wordplay (the name Anti-Pesto sounding like “antipasto” notwithstanding), including ones hidden in the background that will make one want to go frame-by-frame just to catch them all. Aside from these sight gags, a lot of the film’s humor takes cues from the three preceding Wallace & Gromit shorts to great effect. One particularly funny sequence towards the end of the movie involves Gromit fighting a bull terrier on a coin-operated plane that has managed to take flight. While on a rooftop, the plane runs out of time, leading the two dogs to pause their battle in order to insert another coin, after which they promptly resume the fight as though nothing had happened.

Wallace (Peter Sallis, left) finds a new Anti-Pesto client in
Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter, right).

In what was likely part of DreamWorks Animation’s misguided attempt to “Americanize” the movie, a number of belching scenes are present. While some British humor isn’t necessarily above this sort of thing, it is rather atypical of a
Wallace & Gromit story, as this type of humor is not present in any of the original three shorts, nor was it present in the episodic Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures game developed by Telltale Games or the TV short produced after the movie, A Matter of Loaf and Death. That said, ignoring the fact that real-life rabbits are physically incapable of belching, some instances of it felt appropriate while others were more hit-and-miss.

The animation is also praise-worthy, especially given that the chosen medium of stop-motion continues on from the original shorts with an upscale in quality and visual detail while still retaining Aardman’s signature art style. Some sets such as Lady Tottington’s mansion and secret vegetable garden, as well as the local church, are particularly impressive, especially when they are flooded with various forms of vegetables. In any stop-motion production, some cheats with CG are perfectly understandable, such as in the case of smoke/explosion effects or anything similar. Another reasonable place the films cheats a little is when a large number of rabbits are floating around in a containment unit, as the CG helps to make the floating effect more convincing in such a small space, otherwise the actual stop motion effects are impressive enough in their own right.

Within the last few years I’ve become fascinated with learning more about animals, as knowing more about their anatomy and various cultural misconceptions is important for trying to grow one’s skills as an artist. One animal I’ve been learning a lot more about is rabbits, including how it’s not actually healthy to feed them only carrots, though the movie does realistically show rabbits, including the Were-Rabbit, indulging in a large variety of produce. The movie does take some bit of artistic license that I let go for the sake of entertainment, such as the overall design of the lagomorphs working with the visual style and some scenes of rabbits howling for the sake of a werewolf joke. One thing that did bother me a bit, however, was that the Were-Rabbit has paw pads, a feature that real rabbits lack and should be taken into consideration when caring for one.

As the one returning primary voice actor from the shorts, the late Peter Sallis does a fantastic job as Wallace, showing his experience with the character while also using certain scenes to display a wider range of emotions previously unseen. While I did re-watch the original shorts upon Sallis’ passing in his memory, it felt nice to hear his voice as Wallace once again while revisiting this movie. Apparently during production, DreamWorks Animation wanted to recast Wallace with an American actor in one of their attempts to Americanize the production. Thankfully, Aardman was adamantly against this, though a compromise was reached with the casting of Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter, though in the years following this movie, Sallis would eventually be replaced with soundalike Ben Whitehead for other projects, including commercials and the aforementioned Telltale game.

For those who are most familiar with Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter for their respective roles as Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter film series, or even the latter for her frequent collaborations with director Tim Burton, this movie serves as a good reminder of how much range these actors otherwise have. Ralph Fiennes plays the antagonistic Lord Victor Quartermaine, though in this case the antagonism comes from his preference to deal with rabbits at gunpoint (with no on-screen success) and his attempts to remove Wallace from the picture, believing him to be an obstacle in his quest to woo Lady Tottington. Helena Bonham Carter herself portrays Lady Tottington, convincingly playing an animal lover who would rather rabbits be dealt with humanely, even hesitating to let Quartermaine shoot the Were-Rabbit.

Lord Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes, left) will do
anything to get Wallace away from Lady Tottington.

Equally important to the identity of
Wallace & Gromit as Wallace’s voice is the classic opening theme heard at the beginning of every short, which this movie includes in a rather humorous title sequence. Not only that, the theme is incorporated as a sort of leitmotif that can be heard throughout the film’s score, enforcing its status as a highly-memorable musical piece. Keeping in line with the shorts, the theme can also be heard at least once just before the end credits finish, completing the Wallace & Gromit experience.

Over 15 years later, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit has aged like wine, even if it’s not one of the best-tasting wines on the rack. The animation, voice acting and storytelling have all the makings of a great Wallace & Gromit story, though it is evident that DreamWorks Animation’s influence may have held it back a little. Despite the setbacks, the finished product holds up as one of the most unique takes on the horror genre and is perfect for any family Halloween experience, especially amongst Wallace & Gromit fans.

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