I missed A Grand Day Out, Wallace and Gromit’s debut. A year later, you couldn’t move for trailers for The Wrong Trousers and we watched it together at Xmas and everybody howled with laughter. It was perfect in every respect, the sort of thing that happens when you let a genius do his thing, and surround him with the perfect support. I’d decades, literally, of Peter Sallis in Last of the Summer Wine, but ever since then, he was Wallace, to a T (not to mention a U, V, W, X, Y and Z).
There were the three Xmas shorts and then there was Curse of the Were Rabbit, the only full-length feature, and with Sallis gone there can be no more. Nothing comes close to the perfection of The Wrong Trousers, but the film is a wonderful creation, 78 minutes of 14 carat, industrial strength silliness, full of enough ingenuity, inspiration and plain British whimsy to make a film twice its length feel exhustingly funny.
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was the third and last to be made under Ardman’s link with Dreamworks. Nick Park has spoken about the problems during the film’s making with production notes from Dreamworks all trying to get him to alter the film to make it more attuned to the expectations of American children, and whilst I can easily understand their concerns, Wallace and Gromit is British to its core, and Northern British at that.
That is the film’s genius, to place Wallace, Gromit and their absurd concerns firmly in the context of a late Forties/early Fifties British northern working classs milieu, the very height – or is that depth? – of placid, uneventful inertia. Wallace’s madcap inventions may be as bang-up-to-date and about five-minutes-into-the-future, but they’re constructed from the most ramshackle, ordinary and ridiculous components, borrowing heavily from Heath Robinson in their unnecessary complexity (the Anti-Pesto alarm is a gem) that combines implausible contrast with the uttermost fidelity to the times.
Ardman agreed to clean up the soundtrack to make the dialect much less concentratedly British, but I can’t say that I noticed any softening on my DVD, unlike the Edinburgh version of last week’s That Sinking Feeling. There’s certainly no let-up on the humour, be it visual (Wallace reading a celebrity magazine called Ay-Up) or verbal, which in a lot of cases is put together in a way that suggests the story being contrived to put a silly, and often rude line in place by building a cenarion around its punch-line being a completely reasonable comment. The enormously large rabbit dropping is made trebly funny by being completely accurate.
What’s the film about, for those so unenlightened as to not have seen this? Wallace, our gloriously daft inventor, and Gronit, his pragmatic and sensible dog, have become pest-controllers, much in demand as the annual Vegetable Prize Show at Tottington Hall draw nears. They are humane pest-controllers, meaning that after they capture the vegetable-eating rabbits, they keep them safe and feed them sliced carrots.
The plasticene bunnies are miracles of hilarity in themselves. They look ridiculous, with the chubby cheeks and the two front teeth, and there is this scene where dozens of them are whirling around in anti-gravity, placid and serene, which is goofy to the power of a million. Clive James once praised the high-speed editing of a video on The Kenny Everett Show by suggesting the editor must have the patience to pick up spilled mercury but whoever put that bit together makes the Everett editor look like a fumble-fingered slowpoke.
Wallace then uses one of his inventions to brainwash the bunnies into rejecting vegetables. Unfortunately, (I love that word), something goes wrong, there’s a blowback and Wallace gets his brain merged with a rabbit that they name Hutch. Hutch now hates carrots. He goes on to develop a fixation for horrible sleeveless knitwear, carpet slippers and cheese, whilst Wallace turns into a giant Were-Rabbit at the full of the moon (complete with extended change sequence that parodies the one from An American Werewolf in London).
Throw in the Aristocratic Lady Tottington (‘call me Totty’), voiced wonderfully by Helena Bonham-Carter, her would-be husband and fortune-hunter, hunter Lord Victor Quartermaine, an equally perfectly judged OTT performance from Ralph Fiennes, and familiar British voices like Peter Kay, Liz Smith and Nicholas Smith, ex-of Are You Being Served?, and the whole thing is a parcel of eccentricity. There’s even a small role for one Pete Atkin, former carpenter, former BBC producer and of course majorly overlooked singer and songwriter (honest admission: I can’t tell which villager he is).
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit contains, I think, more plain laugh-out-loud moments than any other film I’ve seen this year, and I’m counting Chicken Run in that. And yet it’s still no The Wrong Trousers. Imagine that…