Sunday, October 23, 2005

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Okay, I actually saw this a week ago, but it's taken me a bit of time to write it up...

I've never been a big fan of Wallace & Gromit. I think it's the way they've always been presented in the UK. They first turned up in the Very Special Christmas Animation slot on the BBC, effectively with a big sign hanging over them saying "Behold the new national institution, which you shall adore." (Actually, this isn't strictly true - it first aired on Channel 4 months earlier - but that didn't stop the BBC promoting them as a new discovery.)

Placed in that spot on the schedule, and with its defiantly English tone, Wallace and Gromit duly wormed their way into my subconscious as "Something granny would probably love." I can't quite shake the feeling of being surrounded by Daily Mail readers offering me cups of tea and saying "Did you see Wallace & Gromit? Oh, we laughed and laughed, didn't we, Gerald? I thought it was wonderful. We're going to write to Points of View to say how much we loved it, aren't we, Gerald?"

All of which, of course, is a bit unfair. But that's first impressions for you.

In reality, Park's sense of humour puts him closer to somebody like Victoria Wood, gently sending up the Britishness of his characters at least as much as he's celebrating it. Much of Park's comedy is based on the English capability to get bizarrely worked up about total trivia, and the sheer irrelevance of the things these characters seem to prize as part of being so very English. In Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the town is gearing up for a giant vegetable competition, and we're left in no doubt that this is the most important thing in the world. Park clearly enjoys building his plots by taking the utterly banal - gardening and humane pest control - and magnifying them to demented proportions.

Not that you'd turn to Nick Park for satire or biting social commentary, of course. He's just not that kind of person. If you went into one of his films looking for that, you'd be completely missing the point. Park builds worlds that are simultaneously reassuring and self-aware, which is why he's got such a widespread following. There's just enough self-awareness to keep the more cynical audiences engaged, but not enough to put off granny. It's perhaps a little surprising that Park uses a hunter as his villain, played as a violent upper-class thug, but then his opposite numbers are fairly silly as well, with Lady Tottington pledging to protect fluffy things.

In fact, Park writes a good full-length story (not that this should really comes as a surprise after Chicken Run, mind you), nicely pacing his set pieces and throwing in some rather good misdirection in the middle. It's a measure of his ability to draw you into his world that he can make you care about the outcome of a story as silly as this.

And of course, even the most curmudgeonly of viewers can't deny his extraordinary ability as an animator. Gromit is the real achievement here - a character with no voice, and missing half of his facial features, who can still be incredibly expressive through hand and eyebrow movements alone. To do this sort of thing at all in stop motion is impressive; but it's amazing just how much Park is able to convey.

Granny probably would like it, but Park is a relic from an earlier day of genuine mass appeal, when it was possible to have a truly broad audience and satisfy them all. It's rare to see somebody even attempting this sort of thing, let alone pulling it off. It's true that he stands in a tradition of homespun Englishness, reflected both in Wallace's bizarre inventions and in Park's own painstaking stop-motion animation. But if more people were doing it as well as him, nobody would have a problem with that tradition.