Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

If you have never experienced the sublime joys of the Wallace and Gromit clay-animated shorts, then I regret to tell you that you have not lived. What you’ve been doing instead, I don’t know. But not living, that’s for sure.

From the British minds who eventually brought us “Chicken Run,” Wallace the daft inventor and his dutiful dog Gromit have appeared in three short films, two of which won Oscars (and the third was nominated). “The Wrong Trousers,” in which a pair of mechanical pants fall into the hands of diabolical penguins, is a masterpiece of creativity, comedy, action and filmmaking, all in one 30-minute segment.

And now, a decade after the shorts were created, W&G finally get their own feature: “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” which is as delightful an animated romp as has come to theaters in many moons. It’s a stylish send-up of black-and-white monster movies — I dare say you’ll recognize some of the camera angles and plot devices as characteristic of the genre even if you’ve never actually seen the old fright flicks — as well as a buffet of subtle sight gags, raucous adventure and wicked puns not a few.

Wallace (voice of Peter Sallis) is a congenial, slightly addled, cheese-loving inventor who relies on his silent dog Gromit for far more than he realizes. Gromit has no mouth and no voice, but his eyes are hilariously expressive — a testament to the animators, who created the film with clay models posed one frame at a time. Gromit views with indefatigable dedication the buffoonery of his master and is quick to act when things need sorting out. He is a canine Jeeves.

Wallace and Gromit’s latest venture is a business called Anti-Pesto, which will remove marauding rabbits from your garden without doing the animals any harm. (They’re kept in Wallace’s basement for the time being, though he’s not sure what he’ll do when he runs out of space.) Anti-Pesto is on elevated alert at present because the town’s vegetable competition is at hand, with all the villagers planning to enter something.

Alas, at this point the town is beset by a monstrous beast which rampages the gardens and eats every green thing in its path. Wallace insists he can catch it, but Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), a squat, swaggering Gaston type — Wallace’s chief rival for the affections of the winsome Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter) — says capturing the thing is impossible. It’s a were-rabbit, and it must be KILLED.

A were-rabbit, obviously, is a person who turns into a rabbit when the moon comes out, and you get one guess who it turns out to be. But no matter! What a joyous affair the whole film is! Creator Nick Park co-directs with Steve Box, and co-writes with Box, Bob Baker and Mark Burton, and all four (with their large staff of artists and designers) demonstrate a loving attention to detail and efficiency that is all but extinct in modern filmmaking. Only Pixar gets it this right, this regularly, and it makes sense: When the process is so slow and painstaking, you have more time to notice and remove the unsuccessful or extraneous elements. (The problem with most movies nowadays is they were made too fast, before anyone had a chance to think better of them.)

The film has sight gags at every turn, often involving signs and other written things. The unflappable Gromit’s facial expressions are good for quite a few laughs, too, as are the antics of the captive bunnies. Oh, and the angry-mob-with-pitchforks finale, and the “King Kong” homage, and the underground chase, and the montage of W&G photos accompanying the opening credits, and — heavens, the whole thing is just a cracking good time, so funny and clever and madly entertaining.

A (1 hr., 25 min.; G, with a few references that will go over kids' heads.)