It’s probably very much funnier if you’re already a bit of an Anglophile, if you drink a lot of tea and long to attend a weekend house party in the 1930s at a manor in Sussex where you take the train down from London and someone meets you at a station that’s called a “halt” and you don’t think murder is all that bad as long as the mystery of it is solved by a gentleman who has his manservant dress him for dinner. Cuz the Wallace & Gromit claymation toons have always been very much about both celebrating and sending up the peculiar British character, and you have to recognize it as a bit silly and a bit of an exaggeration that was never really real anyway but still completely love and embrace it nevertheless to really get the warmth and affection with which they — the Wallace & Gromit toons, that is — are offered for your entertainment.
And in their first feature-length outing — W&G creator Nick Park gave us the hilarious and poignant Chicken Run a few years back, but that has nothing to do with W&G — Wallace and Gromit, the mild-mannered and rather dim inventor and his dog, who is much smarter than he is and tends to knit furiously when worried, well, they’re doing what they do so well, which is run rampant through loving caricatures of British culture. Even though this is three times as long as the Oscar-winning W&G short films, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit feels just as cozy and comfortable and tidy and perfectly complete, nothing superfluous or tacked on to pad out the running time. Let’s just say it right now: Nick Park is a nerdily adorable genius. Or an adorably nerdy genius. (Ditto for his codirector, Steve Box.) You have to love the dedication and painstakingness that goes into the stop-motion animation of 12-inch-tall clay creatures. You have to love that you can see the fingerprints of the animators in the clay when the camera zooms in for a closeup of Gromit’s mouthless mug, which gives him an air of intense anxiety, which is pretty much the state he’s always in. There’s a handcrafted-with-love-for-your-enjoyment quality to the W&G toons, and it’s all sort of more-so and inflated here, on the big screen.
It’s not really something that can be described — either you’re tickled by the cheese humor and the jokes about prize vegetables and the British obsession with gardening, or you aren’t. Either you get that there’s something weirdly funny about a vacuum that humanely sucks veg-eating bunnies up from a garden before they can nibble potentially prize-winning specimens and end up swirling around in a bunny vortex in Wallace’s (the voice of Peter Sallis; Gromit doesn’t speak; he’s got no mouth) bizarre machine, or it’s just so much hare-brained goofiness. Puns are a particularly British brand of wordplay, and there’s a lot of it in Curse of the Were-Rabbit — Wallace bunny-removal service is called Anti-Pesto — but there’s a lot of satire, too: the aristocrat Lady Campanula Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter: Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is lovely if a bit, um, inbred. Her suitor, gun-crazy, bunny-murdering Victor Quartermaine is a deliciously wicked burlesque of the British upper class, and Ralph Fiennes (The Constant Gardener, Maid in Manhattan), providing his voice, has never been funnier. (Well, I’m not sure that Fiennes has ever been funny, full stop. He’s brilliantly wicked, here.)
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, as you may have guessed, does feature a bunny-monster who goes on “night of vegetable carnage,” and so the film — in the grand tradition of the W&G toons — invokes classic film, from King Kong and Frankenstein to Harry Potter and Cronenberg’s The Fly; hell, there’s even an extended takeoff on Snoopy and Red Baron. But really, it’s all about taking on the supposedly unflappable British character, and flapping it a bit.
Oscars Best Animated Feature 2005