It's overrated. Then it gets better and it's rather good. Then in the end it's rather wonderful. This film is like the anti-matter twin of those badly regarded A Nightmare on Elm Street
movies that are good for most of their running time yet people only remember the bad ending. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit's first act is a bit ham-handed, but it comes alive when the were-rabbit gets into the action.
The film begins with Wallace and Gromit going around like Heath Robinson versions of Batman, keeping the world (um, the village's local produce) safe for the Tottington Hall Giant Vegetable Competition. I'm there. All films should be like this. The claymation is lovely, as indeed you'd hope it would be since doing it took five years. The average daily output of usable film was three seconds. It's odd and a shame that one often sees a simplified form of this kind of animation on children's TV, but rarely in movies. It's a rather remarkable effect. Everything's real. A door is a door, built by carpenters like any other door and then put in front of a camera. A window is a window. It's slightly shocking when something breaks the mood, either with the clay blobs that represent splashing liquid in the Aardman-verse or alternatively a too-realistic explosion towards the end.
There are lots of rabbits. They're not cute, though. Claymation turns them into plasticine blobs rather than fluffy bundles of awwwwwww, but they're characterful and they're definitely rabbits. Of the guest supporting humans, the most important are Victor Quartermaine, Lady Campanula Tottington and Reverend Clement Hedges. Their character designs aren't trying to be naturalistic, which pays off in an odd way with Lady Tottington. It might seem that there's a romantic angle involving her and Wallace, but her character design is so extreme that you never take the prospect seriously. It would be like marrying a fish! What's going on with her lips? Aardman apparently did forty redesigns of her character, which I'd guess involved looking for exactly the right blend of likeable, good-natured and deformed.
There's religious imagery bolted on to these three, so blatantly that even children might notice. "This is my Jacob's ladder to heaven." Huh? Lady Tottington is like an angel and Quatermaine is like a devil. Watch out for the shot where they seem to have wings and horns respectively. I'm not entirely sure what this is doing here, but to me it feels like another homage to the bygone days of Hammer and Universal. What kind of horror movie would it have been without a terrified priest, a church and a crucifix, eh?
I haven't mentioned the stars of the show yet, though. That would be Wallace and Gromit. DreamWorks apparently wanted the former to be played by a well-known actor that American audiences would recognise instead of Peter Sallis, despite the fact that the role had been his since the first animated short. You know, since their policy of all-star voice casts had been such a triumph in the likes of Shark Tale. Of course Aardman said no, although they did bring in Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter in the two main supporting roles. Mark Gatiss appears too. As one Miss Blight. Naturally I approve wholeheartedly of using Peter Sallis, although oddly I also don't think he's particularly good here. He's about 120 years old, isn't he? Born on 1 February 1921, says the imdb. Personally I found him a bit too gentle and one-paced, although he's undeniably sweet.
Act one has three problems. 1. The plot is still in first gear and so it's a bit pedestrian. That's not necessarily bad if a film can keep us entertained getting to know its characters on a more personal level, but this brings us to... 2. The set-ups can be clumsy. They scream "kiddie film". Yes, I know that's exactly what this is, but you'd have expected better from Disney or Pixar. Wallace's love of cheese ends up being important to the plot, but as a result of this it's overplayed in act one. I didn't believe in it. Similarly Victor Quartermaine is effective in the second half, but overly cartoonish in the first.
Worst of all though is 3. It's immediately obvious what's going on with the were-rabbit and so there's an unfortunate stretch of at least ten minutes where you're kicking your heels, waiting for the characters to catch up.
You'll soon forget all that, though. Once the were-rabbit is on the rampage, you'll get caught up in the rather brilliant pastiche of Hammer horror. It's actually better than the real thing was and almost manages to be scary even with its monster being: (a) a rabbit, and (b) funny. As children's entertainment, I can't think of anything quite like it. Monsters Inc. was ironically full of funny-shaped people, not monsters. They gossiped. They bitched about working conditions and how long until clocking-off time. They didn't go on mad killer rampages through your prize turnips. It's a better werewolf film than many werewolf films, with a more interesting plot and a mirroring idea that I'm embarrassed to say I didn't see coming. In the end it even detours into King Kong, complete with planes and dogfights. You'll see what I mean.
The humour is fairly gentle, but it is funny. Most of its best jokes are little visual ideas, although it does explicitly poke fun at genre conventions from time to time. It also has a few off-colour jokes, rendered inoffensive by virtue of being purely anatomical rather than actually sexual. I laughed at them too.
Incidentally I must tell you my favourite Were-Rabbit story. When the film came out in Portland, Dorset, the posters couldn't bear the word "rabbit". There's a local superstition banning the use of this word, since burrowing can cause dangerous landslips in the local stone quarrying industry. Instead they say things like "underground mutton" or "furry things". Thus Portland's film posters bore another slogan: "Something bunny is going on."
This is an impressive film. To put my tastes in perspective, this is the first animated film I've liked with the DreamWorks name on it, even at second hand like this. Disney have produced some of my favourite films of all time but also lots of dross, while I even have my niggles with Pixar. I prefer their early stuff. Even The Incredibles seemed to lack something for me, although I need to rewatch that one to make sure that wasn't me setting my expectations too high. Curse of the Were-Rabbit isn't as good as the earlier Wallace and Gromit short films, but that's partly a feature of the running time. The demands of a 85-minute story are completely different to those of a 30-minute one. You can't just set up a gag and run with it, then stop. It's certainly much more ambitious than those predecessors, not to mention being clearly better than the fairly low-key Chicken Run.
Thinking about it, the best comparison point for this film might be Hot Fuzz. Both movies are both recent genre homages set in a sleepy English market town, although Curse of the Were-Rabbit has the better action sequences. They're both so much better than most British films that it's almost embarrassing, not to mention being funny. Hot Fuzz is doing something more difficult, since its chosen genre was deliberately chosen to clash with its English setting rather than complement it, but the Aardman film is walking some tricky tightropes too. There are emotionally richer children's animated films out there, but this has far more character than most. It's fun.