Sunday, October 09, 2005

Not even Wensleydale?

We saw Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit this weekend. It's great. But it does not quite reach the level of sublimity that the earlier half-hour efforts do. The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave in particular are not mere children's entertainments but intricately-plotted, layered dramas. The characters and the world they live in seem like real people. Just to give an example: In ACS, Wallace develops a possible romantic interest in Wendolene Ramsbottom, the owner of a knitting shop. But Wendolene has been forced into a life of crime by her highly intelligent cyber-dog Preston, aiding him in his sheep rustling scheme. Wendolene's motives throughout the film are ambiguous and troubling. The budding affection between her and Wallace seems genuine at first, but later it appears she may have been using him to effect her escape from Preston. Or she may even be a willing participant. She says nothing as Gromit is sent to prison for crimes she and Preston have committed. At the end, she and Wallace part ways when she expresses a distaste for his beloved cheese. It's not clear if she really does hate cheese or if that's just her way of dumping him.

Wallace and Gromit are themselves a codependent pair. When Gromit is arrested and put on trial for sheep rustling, Wallace does not express outrage at the injustice being done. He simply says "Oh, Gromit!" with sorrow and reproach. It looks like he believes Gromit might be guilty, though he does later bust him out. In TWT, he needs some extra money and rents out Gromit's room to a penguin. When trouble arises, his first impulse is to say, impatiently, "where's Gromit?" Wallace's expectation is that Gromit will selflessly ride to his rescue - which he invariably does. Gromit is the only genuine adult in the films.

Back to my original point. COTWR is a very good film, packed with charms, entertaining throughout. Worth seeing alone for the Stinking Bishop cheese. Or the tenderness that Gromit lavishes on his giant melon. It at least returns his affection by growing so robustly.

But the movie lacks some of the emotional and plot complexity of the shorter films. There are no characters caught in a web like Wendolene. The bad guy is a buffoon, not a genuine threat. Earlier bad guys, Preston and Feathers McGraw (the penguin), are smart and devious - worthy adversaries for W&G, or at least G. They appropriate Wallace's inventions for their own ends. (There is a Ph.D. thesis for someone on what the W&G films say about technology run amok.) In form, COTWR suffers a bit as well. Both TWT and ACS are mysteries - we know something's afoot, but the full dimensions of the nefarious plot are not revealed until close to the end. The films make you think back on everything you've seen and reinterpret it. The main surprise in the COTWR occurs midway through, and after that it's just a question of how to sort out all the plot threads.

I don't want to get too down on Nick Park and Aardman for making a movie that almost, but doesn't quite, measure up to their previous efforts. Maybe it was the unusual pressure of making a studio film with Dreamworks, or the distinct challenges posed by the form of a 90-minute feature instead of a short. Obviously they have set their own bar incredibly high.