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Friday, March 10, 2006

Kids' stuff, but for all of us

Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Nick Park, Steve Box
Running time: 85 minutes
Language: Englsih
Opens March 18
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Technology moves forward relentlessly, and most people tend to go with the flow, under the assumption that newer is better. That's not always true, though, and as Galadriel lamented in "The Fellowship of The Ring," "Much that once was is now lost."

News photo
Wallace (left) and Gromit in "Curse of the Were-Rabbit"

Thus, the warm analog sound of records -- or even the crisp, spacious sound of CDs -- gives way to the thin sound of MP3. The advance of pitch-correction software leads to fewer vocalists who can actually sing. Irradiation of vegetables means we can eat Chinese produce cheaply, but at what cost to our health?

Not to sound like a Luddite, but sometimes, the old way is better -- whether it's recording to tape or pesticide-free agriculture.

This is true of movies as well, and perhaps the best example of deliberate backwardness is British director Nick Park and his "Wallace & Gromit" series of animated films. Where the entire world of animation, from Disney to Dreamworks, seems to have wholeheartedly embraced computer-graphics animation (largely spurred on by the success of Pixar), Park remains doggedly dedicated to the joys of "claymation," stop-motion animation shot frame-by-freaking-frame using plasticine models.

The medium was perhaps best known for the surreal "Gumby" cartoons of the 1960s, and the religious-themed "Davey and Goliath," but it never really took off. Park's genius was to embrace its retro, hokey vibe and apply painstaking attention to detail, fluid movements, exquisitely crafted sets and lighting like a "proper" film. And, of course, invest it all with a particularly British sense of the quaint and absurd.

Park's first short, "A Grand Day Out" (1989), started as a school project and took him six years to finish. It was a slightly mad achievement, but the characters he had created -- the curmudgeonly inventor Wallace and his taciturn, infinitely more sensible dog, Gromit -- caught on and the film became a cult hit. Two followups, "The Wrong Trousers" (1993) and "A Close Shave" (1995), both won Oscars and put Park at the pinnacle of contemporary animation.

And then, so it seemed, it was over. Park abandoned the much-loved duo to make a film for Dreamworks, 2000's "Chicken Run," which seemed much more generic, and failed to take off. Perhaps deciding to do what he does best, Park at last returned to Wallace & Gromit, and his latest -- "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," (co-directed by collaborator Steve Box) -- marks the first feature-length foray for the animated duo (And earned Park his fourth Oscar last Sunday).

Fans of the series so far will be delighted. Despite the increase in scale -- Park started off as a one-man show, and now he has a staff of 250 -- nothing has been lost. It's all there: the mad contraptions, the background details, the insanely intricate chase scenes, the truly wince-inducing puns, and, of course, the cheese, Gromit, the cheese!

"The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" sees W&G working in the pest-control business, snapping up marauding bunnies who pop up in their village's vegetable gardens. Their many clients include villagers who are growing out-sized veggies for the annual Giant Vegetable Contest. Wallace is too humane to exterminate the rabbits, so he stores them in his basement until he gets the idea to use his "lunar-powered brainwave device" to reprogram the bunnies to not eat veggies ("Rabbit rehabilitation!"). Gromit raises a skeptical eyebrow, but Wallace -- in his laconic, Northern accent -- assures him "just a bit of harmless brain alteration, that's all." The plan fails, naturally, and soon the town is plagued by a monstrous "were-rabbit."

The sight-gags and set-pieces are brilliant from beginning to end, with particular stand-outs being the giant high-tech vacuum cleaner Wallace uses to suck rabbits out of their burrows, and a bravura sequence in which Gromit burrows a van underground on the heels of the fleeing monster. Again, Park and crew deliver the most inventive, playful chase scenes you'll see this decade.

Celebrity voices are used sparingly, but effectively, with Helena Bonham Carter voicing Lady Tottington, the pointy-haired and posh client of Wallace, and Ralph Fiennes -- showing he has a sense of humor -- as Wallace's rival, Victor, a boasting twit of a hunter who wants to "bwast" the wabbits. But Park doesn't need celebrities when he's got Wallace & Gromit, perhaps the most idiosyncratic and hopelessly predictable (therefore funny) characters in modern animation this side of The Simpsons.

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