I hadn't realized just how hungry I had been for a lovely bit of cheese I mean, for a tasty chunk of Nick Park art and philosophy until the familiar, bouncy theme music that announces the arrival of Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit got me salivating. Here, in the nick of time, is a cheeky pip-pip and hip-hip-hooray for the British virtues of decency, class consciousness, and well-tended garden vegetables! Finally, we have news of the daft, Wensleydale-loving, clay-animated English inventor Wallace and his resourceful, long-suffering canine companion Gromit, last seen on the big screen a decade ago in the Oscar-winning short A Close Shave.
In their first feature-length adventure, the duo operate a profitable pest-control business, win the affection of a trilling noblewoman, outwit the schemes of a twitty upper-class gent, and defeat a ravaging, mutant beast come to wreak havoc on the townsfolk's gardens in scenes that bear no small semblance to those in Universal horror classics. In short, the symbiotic pair generally display the absurd virtues of plucky Englishness and extravagant Laurel-and-Hardy luck in the face of chaos that have made W&G such feet-of-clay heroes for 16 years, and have put the Aardman Animation chaps on the map.
The challenge this time for Park and his codirector, Steve Box, is to give fans what we've been waiting for while bringing newcomers to the W&G household up to date on the couple's domestic partnership. Mission: Accomplished. It takes but a few scenes of morning routine in which the two are roused, dressed, and fed via a series of Rube Goldberg-inspired gizmos to establish that Wallace (voiced to perfection, as ever, by Peter Sallis) is the inventor but not necessarily the smarter of the two, and that the silent Gromit (with infinitely expressive eyes that communicate a thousand shades of ''heaven help me'' and ''here's another fine mess you've gotten us into'') is actually the brains in the family.
Then it's off to the fair, or at least to the days leading up to the annual Giant Vegetable Competition, days in which the garden-proud local populace retains W&G's ''Anti-Pesto'' services to deal humanely with any rabbits that may threaten the well-being of competition veggies. (Wallace's innovative Bun-Vac 6000 painlessly sucks the little hoppers up into a holding vat, then blows them into pens at the proprietors' home to become supervised guests.) But the good work they do for grand Lady Tottington (voiced with a knack for being an animated fancy lady by Helena Bonham Carter) doesn't sit well with Tottie's pompous, scheming suitor, Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes, letting rip with lusty glee) he'd much rather blast the varmints and soon Victor has his sights on shutting down the W&G operation, too.
The movie rollicks with visual slapstick, puns, and drive-by joke-cluster bombs that fall on young and adult viewers alike with such good aim (in the Chicken Run style, which is highest praise indeed) that it's easy to forget that it took Park, Box, and their devoted team five labor-intensive years to move these clay townspeople and bunnies and lycanthropes with stop-motion precision. (The thumbprints intentionally left on the subjects are marks of monomaniacal love.) For all the obsession required by the technical demands of this joyous hand-made film, man, dog, and human handlers never appear to break a sweat. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit bestows generous blessings on all that's good in Englishness, in moviedom, and, of course, in cheese.