In a Woody Allen movie, everybody talks like Woody Allen. And in any project involving Nick Park, the reigning auteur of clay animation, you can recognize his hand immediately in the designs of his plasticine-figure stars the toothy overbites on human characters, the doorknob noses, the round button eyes and big, fleshy hands with fingers waggling with excitement.
Back in 1989, Park blazed a name in 'toon history with the five-minute talking-animal survey Creature Comforts, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, and A Grand Day Out, a 23-minute opus that introduced befuddled, cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his silent dog, Gromit. Through two more Oscar-winning W&G adventures (The Wrong Trousers in '93 and A Close Shave in '95), Disney made overtures about doing features. Instead, Park and his Bristol, England-based cohorts at Aardman Animations signed up with ex-Mouse House chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks. The partnership yielded 2000's Chicken Run, a $106.8 million hit in North America, but a planned second feature based on the tortoise-and-hare fable foundered in script development.
Finally, it was time to kick-start Park's longtime dream: a Wallace & Gromit movie. ''In a way, the short films were always aspiring to be features,'' he says. ''We tried to put a cinematic look into them, and often they were referencing favorite movies.'' Were-Rabbit salutes the stock ingredients of old Universal horror flicks. To wit: Dog and master must fight a fiendish mutant bunny who's ravaging the veggie patches of their neighborhood. ''I find rabbits a bit scary, I must say,'' says codirector Steve Box, who animated Gromit's memorable penguin nemesis, Feathers McGraw, in Wrong Trousers. ''You know Watership Down? To me, that's a really scary film.''