Here’s one to make you feel old: Wallace and Gromit’s debut feature film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit turns ten years old this month – but instead of sitting and pondering the fleeting nature of time, what better occasion to sit back and appreciate the first (and to date only) UK-produced film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature? Aardman creator and visionary Nick Park’s sophomore effort (after the equally delectable Chicken Run) loses absolutely nothing in its beloved duo’s translation from the lo-fi charm of their three shorts – as seen by every British child every year around Christmas – to their DreamWorks-backed worldwide cinematic debut.
Aardman Animation’s apparently limitless scope for wit and visual invention is on full display in Curse of the Were-Rabbit: from Peter Sallis’ delightful voicework as the string-vested, curly-foreheaded Wallace, to Gromit’s perpetual eye-rolling (13 eye rolls in this film alone), and with enough literary/cheese puns to make a fromage-loving English graduate weep (highlights include “East of Edam”, “Brie Encounter” and “Waiting for Gouda”). It would have been all too easy for Aardman to have phoned this in, relying on a subpar effort over-reliant on the audience’s nostalgia for its central duo – however the 2.8 tons of Plasticine used for “the world’s first vegetarian horror film” was put to very good use indeed in recreating its wonderful world for the silver screen.
A long-standing highlight of Aardman’s productions is their blink-and-you’ll-miss-them pop culture references, sight gags, and other tiny details that add life and colour to their creations – and by gum is Were-Rabbit full of them. As with the three W&G shorts, sharp-eyed viewers are rewarded as we see the finer details of Wallace’s life and his mad, bizarrely specific contraptions (even the names of which are hilariously old-school, such as the “Mind Manipulation-O-Matic”). Throughout the film we see a “heavy loam” setting for his windscreen wipers, Wallace’s perusal of “Ey-Up!” magazine, and a hastily erected “Angry Mob Supplies” shop for the film’s climax – as well as a new variation on Wallace’s classic Getting-Up-in-the-Mornings machine (who as a child didn’t dream of having one of those?). All of these details combine to ground the film’s world in its oddball reality, adding texture and wit to its Plasticine world.
This lived-in feel to Were-Rabbit‘s world and the believable ‘human-ness’ of its characters is also consistently upheld by the animation itself and the outstanding and creative production design. Wallace’s aforesaid flexible forehead allows him a range of expressions you wouldn’t believe, and despite mute Gromit’s total absence of lines we are never in any doubt as to what he is feeling or trying to convey thanks to his own furrowed brow and wonderfully expressive eyes. During Wallace’s morning routine we can almost feel the cosiness of his tartan slippers, or the crinkle of his morning papers – his wallpaper, too (all hand-painted for the film), will bring about fond memories of the original shorts – and along with details like the cobbled streets, or the wartime-era style housing and advertising posters it helps to set the scene in a temporal sense. The quaintness and pluck of the emulated era and the Northern British towns of Nick Park’s inspiration become the stars of the show through Aardman’s creative design choices.
The old-fashioned charm of the stop motion animation is aided by more modern techniques – though never in a way that offsets its charm or makes the film feel as if DreamWorks have besmirched Aardman’s unique visual style. It would be easy to think that the Were-Rabbit’s plushy fur is a computer-generated embellishment on a bare character model – it is in fact real fur, upon which which the animators avoided leaving tell-tale finger marks through the use of an internal frame which could position the model without physical intervention – a model which allegedly broke three times during the animation of the film’s kinetic finale. Other modern adornments include mist and smoke, and the glowing sci-fi trappings of Wallace’s Mind-Manipulation-O-Matic, yet again these complement Aardman’s Plasticine stop motion rather than overpower it.
The influence of CGI animation brought by DreamWorks led the following year to the production of Flushed Away, Aardman’s first foray into fully-computerised animation. Not a bad film in and of itself, Flushed Away nonetheless struggled to match the homespun wit and charm of its stop motion stablemates, and Aardman’s negative experience dealing with the increasingly intrusive input of the major studio resulted in the pair’s split over the old chestnut of “creative differences”. Aside from a brief return to CGI with 2011’s Arthur Christmas (this with the backing of Sony Pictures Animation), Aardman have since preferred to stick to their stop motion roots with the uproarious The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (starring an on-song Hugh Grant) and the critically-acclaimed Shaun the Sheep Movie. With head honcho Nick Park poised to return to the director’s chair for his first feature since the decade-old Were-Rabbit, Aardman could well be due a resurgence to the sort of critical, commercial and cultural success enjoyed by that hugely ambitious yet lovably quaint film.