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"The Curse of the Wererabbit" looks like it could be a whole lot of fun

"The Curse of the Wererabbit" looks like it could be a whole lot of fun

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Ever since DreamWorks announced that it would be working with Aardman Animation to produce a "Wallace & Gromit" feature, animation fans everywhere have been following this project with equal amounts of fascination and dread.

"Why fascination and dread?," you ask. Well, fascination because Wallace & Gromit had already starred in a much beloved trio of shorts:1989's "A Grand Day Out," 1993's "The Wrong Trousers" and 1995's "A Close Shave." With those last two films each being honored with that year's Academy Award for best animated short.

As for the dread ... Well, with the exception of a few commercials as well as those 10 one-minute-long "Cracking Contraptions" films that Aardman produced back in 2002, it's almost a decade since Wallace & Gromit last appeared in a motion picture. So do these two quirky clay characters still have what it takes? Will they prove to be much of a box office draw with today's audiences?

More to the point, given that Wallace & Gromit have only worked in short films up until now, will this duo actually be able to carry an entire animated feature?

Copyright 2005 Aardman Animation Ltd. / DreamWorks Animation L.L.C.

These are the questions that have be taunting animation fans for the past three years. Questions that DreamWorks tried to put to rest this past Friday night when they screened the first 20 minutes of "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Wererabbit" to a select group of animation fans on the studio's Glendale lot.

So what's the verdict? Does "Wererabbit" actually work as an animated feature? Given that we only got to see the first 20 minutes of this Nick Park & Steve Box film, I honestly can't pass judgement on the full-blown motion picture. But based on what I did get to see of this Aardman Animation production, I think it's safe to say that Wallace & Gromit fans are in for a "cracking" good time when "Wererabbit" finally rolls into theaters on October 7th.

By that I mean: The wit, the charm and the amazing attention to detail that made "The Wrong Trousers" & "A Close Shave" such pleasures to watch are clearly in evidence with "The Curse of the Wererabbit." In fact, just as Nick Park did with those two earlier Aardman Animation productions, "Wererabbit" starts off with Wallace & Gromit on the job at "Anti Pesto," the humane pest control company. Where they root a rabbit out of a neighbor's pumpkin patch.

Next, W & G are back at home at West Wallaby Street. Where these two characters go through their early morning routine by making use of all sorts of elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque devices.

Copyright 2005 Aardman Animation Ltd. / Dreamworks Animation L.L.C.

That's one of the things that I think Wallace & Gromit fans are really going to enjoy about "The Curse of the Wererabbit." How much this feature film lovingly refers to the earlier shorts. The human half of this team still needs to go on a diet. Wallace is still cheese crazy. So much so that he gets his hand caught in a large mouse trap as he tries to sneak a piece.

But then the phone rings. It's Lady Tottington (voiced by Helena Bonham-Carter), the hostess of this year's Giant Vegetable Competition. It seems that her estate's gardens has been over-run by rabbits. Can Wallace & Gromit please come help her get rid of all these pests?

With a flick of a switch, breakfast is over. With a suiting-up sequence that would do Batman proud, Wallace & Gromit quickly hit the road for Tottington Hall.

Copyright 2005 Aardman Animation Ltd. / DreamWorks Animation L.L.C.

And it's a good thing that W & G get there as quickly as they did. For Lady Tottington's fierce fiancee -- Victor Quartermaine (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) -- is determined to blast all of the rabbits with his shotgun. The film's dialogue is hilarious as Lady Tottington dithers at Victor.

Lady Tottington: Had we agreed? No more thoughtless killing?

Victor: Quite right, my dear. So I thought this one through very carefully. It's off to Bunny Heaven for you, big ears.

Copyright 2005 Aardman Animation Ltd. / DreamWorks Animation L.L.C

Wallace & Gromit -- however -- have a much kinder, gentler way of dealing with the hares. They just use a giant vacuum cleaner hose to suck up all the bunnies. Often just seconds before Victor blasts them with his shotgun.

Of course, the downside of using a vacuum to suck up all the rabbits is that it also sucks the toupee right off of Quartermaine's head.

Copyright 2005 Aardman Animation Ltd. / DreamWorks Animation L.L.C.

Copyright 2005 Aardman Animation Ltd. / DreamWorks Animation L.L.C.

Which leads to this "Who's On First" -style exchange between Victor & Wallace:

Victor: I want ... toupee!

Wallace: How much?

Victor: How much what?

Wallace: How much do you want to pay?

The audience on the DreamWorks lot just loved this particular piece of dialogue. Not to mention all of the elaborate slapstick set pieces that they saw. But -- then again -- this bunch also chuckled appreciatively at some of the more subtle stuff as well. Like the bit where the camera tracked slowly over all of these photos that had been taken of Wallace & Gromit together over the years. Starting at Wallace's first birthday party, we see a growing estrangement between the dog & his master. As Gromit gradually comes to realize that his owner is a bit of a dimwit.

Copyright 2005 Aardman Animation Ltd. / DreamWorks Animation L.L.C.

Clearly, this audience was into "The Curse of the Wererabbit." Which was why there was this loud "Awwww!" in the auditorium when the 20 minutes was finally over. And this Wallace & Gromit preview gave way to a screening of "Dreamer," the family-friendly feature that DreamWorks will be releasing to theaters come October 21st.

"Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story" was a nice enough motion picture. The film's lead performers -- Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson -- all do a fine job of fleshing out this tale of a racehorse that gets injured while training and the daddy/ daughter that not only nurses this filly back to health, but eventually enters her in the Breeders' Cup Classic ... Where she wins!

Given the number of little girls there are out there that absolutely love horses, I have no doubt that "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story" will do very well once it's finally released on DVD. But as to how this John Gatins film (FYI: Gatins not only wrote "Dreamer" 's screenplay, he also makes his directorial debut on this picture) will do during its theatrical run ... I think that that will depend on what sort of marketing campaign that DreamWorks' promotional department mounts. A gentle, heartfelt movie like this needs pretty special handling in order to find an audience. And seeing as "Dreamer" is being dropped into theaters right in between "Curse of the Wererabbit" (October 7th) and Disney's "Chicken Little" (November 2nd), that seems like a pretty tough spot for a family film to try & flourish in.

Copyright 2005 Aardman Animation Ltd. / DreamWorks Animation L.L.C.

Anyway ... Getting back to "Wallace & Gromit" ... As much as I enjoyed last Friday night's screening, I wish that I had been able to get back to the DreamWorks lot on Saturday morning. For that was when the studio's PR staff had arranged for the film's director, Nick Park, to talk (via video-conferencing) with reporters about what it took to actually produce "The Curse of the Wererabbit."

But even without getting a chance to chat with Nick, I thoroughily enjoyed what little I got to see of Wallace & Gromit's first feature-length film. Which is why -- come October 7th -- I'll be heading to my local multiplex to see how "The Curse of the Wererabbit" actually plays out.

So all you Wallace & Gromit fans out there: You can now stop worrying. These two quirky clay characters seem to have made a graceful transition from shorts to features ... That is, of course, if the next hour or so of this animated film turn out to be as entertaining as the first 20 minutes.


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