- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2005

The disadvantage of waiting a decade or so for the first feature comedy contrived around the delightful cartoon characters Wallace and Gromit — respectively, an eccentric bachelor inventor and his silent, resourceful, long-suffering dog — is that even fond expectations tend to grow a bit stale over an extended period of time. The team’s creator, Nick Park, won Academy Awards in 1994 and 1996 for best animated short, guiding his characters through half-hour slapstick masterpieces titled “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave.”

Since it was unlikely that the eventual W&G; feature, a fable of bunny infestation and vegetable garden havoc subtitled “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” would surpass its predecessors, one should be grateful that the long-awaited picture does have plenty on the ball. What it lacks is the sense of freshness that also animated “Chicken Run,” the first feature from the home of Wallace & Gromit, the Aardman animation studio in Bristol, England.

The new movie is in the position of striking while the iron is cold, and it demands considerable patience while setting up the horror movie gags that justify the idea of a gargantuan, rampaging rabbit.

We rediscover man and pooch as the work force in a pest removal company called Anti-Pesto. As the annual vegetable festival approaches in their village, Wallace and Gromit appear to have the Peter Rabbit problem well in hand. Several neighbors have already purchased ingenious garden alarm devices hidden in ornamental gnomes. The safeguards either spring pest traps or bring Wallace and Gromit to the scene in their speedy van.

Evidently loathe to butcher the furry little pests, the heroes seem to be caging and feeding hordes of them in their own basement. A series of mishaps and oversights leads to a mass escape and the emergence of a monster bunny from Wallace’s lab. Demonstrating an affinity for King Kong, this menace puts Gromit to extreme tests of heroic grit and endurance while rescuing an incapacitated master and terror-stricken community.

The filmmakers till familiar but productive ground while re-establishing the heroes in their Rube Goldberg residence and measuring the town’s devotion to vegetable cultivation and competition. Their most conspicuous failure is an aristocratic rotter called Victor Quartermaine. Dubbed by Ralph Fiennes, he has designs on the village’s patroness, Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter), and resents the trust she has placed in Anti-Pesto to protect the festival. Victor has a vicious, stupid pet dog, Philip, the antithesis of Gromit. Unfortunately, both Victor and Philip are difficult to regard as viable antagonists.

There is an inspired minor character, the vicar, given a great quavering voice by Nicholas Smith. He specializes in portentous or self-pitying pronouncements, such as “Beware the beast within” or “We’re simple folk, it’s all we have.” The elaborate chase devised for the finale concludes at a carnival site erected for the festival, and despite the awesome stunt work demanded of Gromit, perhaps the wittiest single touch is a throwaway: the look of cotton candy blowing across the frame, as if it were a species of tumbleweed.

Wallace and Gromit have been so late coming to a feature that their debut may feel more like a revival. There are moments when the Aardman flair goes perilously slack in “Were-Rabbit,” but the frequency of brainstorms and grace notes remains sufficient to carry the movie across the finish line. Perhaps as overextended and winded as Gromit, but still agreeable and entertaining.

***

TITLE: “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit”

RATING: G (Fleeting comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Nick Park and Steve Box. Screenplay by Mr. Box & Mr. Park, Mark Burton and Bob Baker. Supervising animators: Loyd Price and Merlin Crossingham. Cinematography by Dave Alex Riddett and Tristan Oliver. Production design by Phil Lewis and Jan Sanger. Editing by David McCormick and Gregory Perler. Music by Julian Nott.

RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes

WEB SITE: www.WandG.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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