It was some time early 1994 my brother Mark mailed me this ‘brilliant’ short he’d taped from BBC Ireland. From his description it was a Hitchcockian tale of double identities, sweet-mad inventors, intellectual pets and jewel-thieving penguins – all made in Plastecine. I thought he was daft. Anyway, I couldn’t play the thing – it was PAL.
Weeks later a friend of mine made the conversion. From my first viewing of a grainy copy of “The Wrong Trousers” I was hooked. I wanted more.
Since their introduction in 1989, Wallace & Gromit, the claymation duo from Aardman Studios, have become British icons, as recognized in the UK as Big Ben and the Queen Mother. While they enjoy a cult following in the USA, W&G went wide on October 5th with Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
The W&G shorts recount the adventures of Wallace, an eccentric, soft-hearted inventor, and Gromit, his loyal, silent dog. Nick Park, the creative genius behind W&G first presented the pair in A Grand Day Out (1989)’ where short of cheese and without a weekend plan, Wallace builds a rocket, loads up on crackers and head off to harvest the moon (which we know is made of Wallace’s favorite substance, cheese). A Grand Day Out received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short. Park lost the Academy Award to himself; winning for his hilarious and touching Creature Comforts (1989), a montage of interviews with opinionated zoo animals. His next two W&G adventures (‘The Wrong Trousers(1993), A Close Shave (1995)) would garnish two more Oscars for Park.
Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, is the second Dreamworks and Aardman co-production, following 2000’s Chicken Run. The latest tale sees our heroes at work in, a humane rodent control business named aptly, ‘Anti-Pesto’ (I guess their window washing business went down the drain). Their company specializes in the protection of the town’s valued vegetables from rabbit infestation, and with the application of their patented Bunny-Vac-6000, has kept their veggie loving customers protected to date. The Bunny-Vac 6000 is a masterpiece of stop-motion animation, with its huge glass bubble filled with bunnies turning centrifugally; their graceful motion inspires something like ecstasy.
With the approach of Lady Tottington’s (Helena Bonham Carter) annual Giant Vegetable Competition the village folk are on pins and needles. Their prized marrows are being ravaged by a giant beast, the mythical Were-Rabbit (Bonham Carter had her boyfriend Tim Burton send her Planet of the Apes prosthetic teeth to better create Lady’s Totty’s stick-up-the-arse accent). Lady Tottington employs Anti-Pesto to rid the town of the buck toothed plague. Wallace is once again smitten by a molded temptress and accepts the difficult task in the hope of winning her affections. But when all efforts from Anti-Pesto fail disastrously, Lady Tottington has little option but to employ the services of her jealous would be suitor, Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes having a ball as Upper Class Twit of the Decade). The dastardly Quartermaine will happily blunderbuss the Were-Rabbit to attain the position of local hero and move closer to Totty’s fortune.
But not everything is as it seems…….
The massive adult popularity of Park’s movies lies in his ability to reflect a distinctly British long-lost Penny Lane homey-ness that seems to have universal appeal. West Wallaby Way is a safe haven of picturesque red brick homes, garden gnomes and mouth-watering gardens. In the land of Aardman a man’s terraced house is his castle, protected by neighbors, friends and pets. There is always a welcome for a nice spot of tea and some Wensleydale and crackers at the W&G residence. The Ardman choice of film genres also have a familiar, comforting effect; Hitchcock’s intrigue; Stalag 17 with roosters and hens (Chicken Run) ; a cheese monolith space odyssey and now a Hammer Vegetarian Horror. In Were-Rabbit, Park and Box meld every Vampire, Frankenstein and Werewolf trope since Nosferatu first rose from his cinematic grave. Angry mobs; crazy vicars; skeptical policeman and cucumber crosses abound; even King Kong is referenced, the original icon of stop motion animation. As in all horror, the monster must have it’s Kryptonite, and our creature can only be killed with a 24 Carrot bullet.
To paraphrase Wallace, Park and company “give it a bit more wellie” than other filmmakers. Utilizing the painstakingly slow claymation process the team of thirty plus animator each produced a maximum of three seconds of footage a day. The movie is 85 minutes long. I don’t want to do the math.
Ray Harryhausen is considered the founding master of stop motion, and Park and his team have taken the art to new levels. Harryhausen utilized three dimensional figures as one dimensional characters. Where his monsters are animated wonders they remain clay foils to battle flesh and blood heroes. W&G’s world is a planet onto itself – the motions are fluid and the expressions human. Because we see clay versus clay, the characters all move to the same beat. These are remarkably real creatures with soul, giving heartfelt performances rather than sword-swinging skeletons. Even without a mouth, Gromit conveys more emotion than Rudolph Valentino on his best day. A flick of the eyelids and we know our hero is frustrated, a furrowing of the brow and there must be trouble. By necessity Gromit is an introverted thinker, the balance to the ever babbling, over-reacting Wallace. Because we cannot hear what Gromit has to say, we need to know what he’s thinking. His surprisingly complex emotions are portrayed with just a few wrinkles and dimples from his doughy nose up.
The strength of animation is its ability to create any action or situation imaginable; reality don’t matter. Characters can twist, stretch and deform, the camera can be placed anywhere, the restrictions of night and day do not exist. But where Park and Box utilize these advantages in complex set pieces and harrowing stunts, they choose not to twist and stretch their heroes; they remain limited by the restrictions of human movement. (Though in their own little world though they can pull off pretty cool moves that provide all the cartoon satisfaction an adult could ask for). Should W&G fall victim to an ACME bomb or a Quartermaine bullet we know they cannot simply walk away. As a result we form a powerful bond, a sense of concern that accompanies few cartoon characters.
The W&G tales represent cinema close to its original and possibly truest form. The stories are narrated visually rather than being driven by dialogue. As Park explains it: “It’s as if we have to try and make the film as if it is a silent film because the visuals should tell the story. You should be able to watch it with no sound.”
A huge strength of the storytellers is in their consistent pacing and continuity through the series. Attention to detail can make toast and jam for breakfast as entertaining as an elaborate toy airplane chase. W&G movies are about invention not repetition; they are familiar but not sequels. Aardman has managed to move the pair to the big screen without the pitfalls of other small screen animated transitions. When Scooby, Casper and Bugs took the trip they did not have the confidence to do so without getting louder, dumber and/or incorporating live action. They all failed; partly from a growing lack of interest in 2D but to a large part for straying from the look and feel of the originals. Like any James Bond movie, W&G start with the familiar, a theme song to hum along with followed by an action sequence not related to the plot (in Wallace’s case it’s usually a trip to the breakfast table). These reminders help us settle back into unreality. Park and his artists are not afraid to keep their fingerprints on their work – literally. Often a cut to close-up will reveal a big thumbprint right on Gromit’s nose. Like so many of the details in Aardman Studio’s work, the thumbprint reveals a philosophy even as it charms: Park and company insist we remember that their animation is done by hand.