by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Budget: $30 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
I should not need to introduce you to Wallace & Gromit. If you are British, you should know who Wallace & Gromit are, they’re a national goddamn institution. Their influence is so great that they pretty much single-handedly saved the production of Wensleydale cheese. They are so beloved that their fourth proper short film, A Matter Of Loaf And Death, the first in thirteen years, was the single most-watched programme on Christmas Day 2008, beating out both the soaps and Doctor Who. They’re so re-watchable that the BBC has been re-running every single one of their shorts at every holiday opportunity for what feels like the last decade and a half and nobody ever complains. You can probably quote half of A Grand Day Out right now if you tried hard enough, and everybody remembers the toy train chase from The Wrong Trousers.
Therefore, a movie really was the next logical step for the world-famous duo. They’d already had three acclaimed short films, a collection of short shorts for the BBC’s Christmas 2002 line-up and now-defunct website Atom Films, a movie compilation released in American theatres that still managed to gross one million 1996 dollars, and they had raised the profile of Aardman animations so substantially that their breakthrough into worldwide stardom, Chicken Run, was able to be sold to audiences as “From The Creators Of Wallace & Gromit”. There wasn’t even a worry that it was too late for a Wallace & Gromit film, the characters were that beloved and the films are that timeless that Aardman could drop something Wallace & Gromit related tomorrow and the Internet, but especially me, would just meltdown in tearful anticipation or joy.
The movie in question, The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, emerged in October 2005 to universal critical adoration with only 9 reviews that can be considered negative being published from professional sources. Several critics included it in their best films of 2005 lists in some way, shape or form (and, lest we forget, 2005 was a pretty competitive year in regards to great movies). It won Best British Film at the year’s BAFTAs, swept the year’s Annie Awards taking home the prize in every single category it could have entered (and shutting out everybody else in the Voice Acting In A Feature Production category), and scored DreamWorks Animation their second (and currently last) Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
Financially, the film did decent business domestically, considering the weird ghetto that stop-motion animation falls into at the box office – it opened in first place, before dropping quickly, most likely being dispatched by the end of October and the release of, urgh, Chicken Little; closing at about $56 million. Overseas… let’s just say that it was an enormous success (especially in its native United Kingdom where it ended up having the third biggest opening weekend of the year, behind Goblet Of Fire and Revenge Of The Sith in that order, and managed to three-peat during an insanely competitive October) and leave it at that.
Of course, the film was not as successful as DreamWorks Animation wanted it to be. After all, Chicken Run made $30 million more worldwide than Curse Of The Were-Rabbit did, was a genuine full-on bona-fide hit domestically, and Chicken Run wasn’t the big screen debut of a widely beloved pair of characters. Never mind that Chicken Run cost $15 million more than Curse Of The Were-Rabbit and that $192 million against a $30 million budget isn’t exactly chump change, Wallace & Gromit underwhelmed for the parent company.
This split viewpoint on the film’s box office fate strained relations between Aardman and DreamWorks, which were the absolute last thing both parties needed. See, production on The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit was more than a little troubled. Contrary to the prior times he’d worked on Wallace & Gromit shorts, the film’s co-writer and co-director Nick Park was practically swimming in notes from higher-ups demanding changes. They wanted the design of Wallace’s car to look cooler, they insisted that the British-ness of the accents be toned down to make them more understandable, every instance of the word “marrow” had to be re-dubbed as “melon” for the US release as DreamWorks thought that Americans would have no idea what the characters were on about otherwise (and, yes, that means that characters start referring to “your prize melon”), and there are rumours (that I can’t substantiate) that DreamWorks even tried replacing Peter Sallis as the voice of Wallace; well-known actors like Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter were cast in support roles as a compromise.
Unsurprisingly, Aardman would unofficially split from DreamWorks barely 11 months later (officially in January of 2007), on the eve of their latest release, Flushed Away (which we’ll get to in a fortnight), and with two films of their five film contract unfulfilled. Flushed Away is more than likely the source of a lot of these grievances, a lot of the company even moved to America to work on that film’s CGI-only existence, but it’s clear that DreamWorks, a company that had previously chased Aardman for years in order to get a co-production deal with them, were negatively influencing the company in many of its facets. Not maliciously, Nick Park admits that it was more about them trying to make sure their films played well at the box office, but still enough to potentially cause problems with the end product.
Not that you would know the film had a strained production if you watch the thing. For The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit is as near-perfect a film as one could ask for. Seriously, this film is 84 minutes long and there is pretty much nothing wrong with it; it’s airtight, almost non-stop in the gag department, gorgeously animated and shot, bursting with a tonne of heart, and I can find little wrong with it. It is as close to perfection as something can get. This also leads me to the annoying issue that I don’t really want to talk about it. Not just because my motivation to write has vacated the premises since I returned to university, but mainly because the film is so great that just watching it is a far better usage of one’s time than me sitting here slowly picking it apart and boringly explaining why it works so totally.
Therefore, we’re gonna do something a little different for this week’s instalment. Instead of going through a straight list of reasons why the film works, backed up by clips that may or may not be relevant to that particular paragraph, I am going to embed the film from YouTube below this paragraph and you are going to take 84 minutes out of your day to watch it; that will basically do my job for me. Or, if you’ve already watched the film and know it in and out, you can instead use the below embed to follow my time stamps. I’m going to pick out certain scenes that best epitomise why this film works and briefly look at them in a case study format. And, yes, time stamps because finding individual YouTube clips is getting considerably harder the longer this series goes on for.
Right, either watch this incredibly low-quality stream or start following the time stamps!
0:00:29 – 0:01:37 Immediately, as in it’s the very first thing we see after the requisite studio logos, we are treated to a photo montage of the relationship between Wallace and Gromit. It’s a short sequence, wordless, and often silly, but it very quickly establishes their characters, their little idiosyncrasies and the strength of their bond. It’s also a reference to how all three of their shorts began – a shot of the wall in all three and a pan across a photograph of the pair in the latter two – but, crucially, the call-back isn’t the whole point of the scene. It’s not just a do-over of a classic scene for you to point at and recognise, it serves its own purpose and tells its own story. Most importantly, it’s earnest. Yeah, the set-up gets stretched to create some funny laughs out of it, but there’s so much genuine heart in it that you immediately buy the relationship before you’ve even seen the pair physically.
Obviously their bond and relationship is shown and re-stated frequently throughout, via actions as well as being told (something that, say, Madagascar didn’t really achieve because it spent the majority of its runtime having its cast snipe at one another for laughs), but the way in which the film just speeds through this initial set-up for new viewers without it feeling like a backstory dump or like we’re skipping out on details is just masterful. And for long-time viewers of the duo, it’s the kind of heart-warming fan-service reveal that could leave the more emotional in tears of joy. That may or may not have happened to me when I saw it at the cinema on my 11th birthday in 2005.
By the way; yes, the wall-of-text-breaking embeds are now different Wallace & Gromit shorts instead of anything from the film. I wasn’t kidding when I said that finding clips from it on YouTube is really bloody hard. Do you want to see the first Were-Rabbit transformation scene backed by Kid Cudi, of all goddamn things? Thought not. Accept this and move on.
0:11:14 – 0:17:12 There is a lot that one could talk about here, but I’m going to zero in on two things specifically in the interests of time and because I’ll come to another one later on. First, again note how quickly the film establishes the characters of Victor Quartermaine, his dog Phillip, and Lady Tottingham. How the parallels between Victor & Phillip and Wallace & Gromit are clear but not beaten over the head; how much of pompous, self-entitled jerk Victor is whilst being a laugh riot instead of just being irritating; the connection that Wallace and Lady Tottingham have, and how the film is able to play it as something to put stakse in (vital for later on in the film) but not so much as to think that it’s true love between the pair; the way that it gives a lot of the bunnies individual characteristics so that they’re not just a nebulous “cute bunny” force…
I could go on, but you get my point. Curse Of The Were-Rabbit is ridiculously good at establishing characters and setting up dynamics as quickly as possible. Most of the time it takes just the character design, the attached voice, one action and one line of dialogue to convey that information; Totty has ridiculous hair and a haughty (and broad) upper-class accent but is also one-hundred percent genuine with her pleasantries and manner-of-speaking which indicates her upstanding citizenry, whilst Victor’s portly belly and crooked nose betray his slimy, uncaring and villainous nature well before his pompous choice of greeting and overly-theatrical-yet-contemptuous courtship of Totty make it more abundantly clear. The speed of these set-ups gives the film more time to wring every last possible piece of material from them.
Which brings us to, second: do you notice how British the film’s humour is? I’ve been sat here for a while trying to figure out the best term to describe it and British is the one that I keep coming back to. Now, obviously, we’re not the first or only ones to pioneer jokes based around puns, word play and misunderstandings and then to juxtapose them with silly and slightly broad pieces of physical humour; but I feel we’re the only ones who do so with this, well, feel. Like, everything feels restrained, but not overly so. The “…in an hour?” and toupee jokes are funny, but the film doesn’t attempt to make them supremely obvious gut-busters or anything; the toupee one, especially, goes the obvious route and then has a more subtle second punchline that catches viewers off-guard with just how funny and rather clever it is. Whilst the physical gags, like the bunny on Victor’s head, benefit from crackerjack timing and just the right compromise between broadness and subtlety.
It’s really hard to explain in words why the feel of the film, humour and not, is so uniquely British. It’s just one of those intangible qualities that you just get when watching the film. Can you imagine what this would have been like if it were made by Americans? Like, no offense, Americans, I love the non-insane parts of you, but do you really think you’d be able to make a film like this if you tried?
0:26:00 – 0:30:09 OK, I picked this scene because it best exemplifies the way that Curse Of The Were-Rabbit truly makes the most of every last shot. Note how the majority of shots in this church sequence carry some kind of visual joke, from the obvious – Totty’s background angel wings and stream of light which is openly called out – to the more subtle – the shot straight afterwards where the camera positions a gardening tool directly behind Victor’s head to make it look like he has devil horns. The cross-fades/match-cuts in and out of the scene and how near-seamless they are, a technique I always appreciate whenever it crops up. The fact that all of the background extras blink at some point during the scene, even if they’re not doing anything else. It’s all of these little things that make the world of the film feel more alive, and demonstrate the love and effort poured into every single frame – not just from the thumbprints that you can occasionally see on some of the character’s models.
0:31:23 – 0:32:42 Following on from that, we get a scene that takes those techniques and skills that were applied for comedy not two minutes earlier and applies them to a straight horror scene. The Were-Rabbit shadow created by Gromit’s ears, the ominous fog, the deathly silence, the clear setting-up of the environment to worry the viewer when stuff changes, the final release with a monster jump scare… It’s a great example of how the techniques cross over if well used and how a legitimately scary sequence can come straight after one of the film’s funniest gags and not have the result feel tonally jarring.
Also, yes, I picked this so that I can have it on record that 11 year-old me jumped out of his skin at the carrot scare when he saw it in the cinema and that nearly 20 year-old me has still not gotten over that fact.
0:43:04 – 0:47:18 Or, y’know, I could’ve just chosen this scene and shown how the switch between horror and comedy works so fantastically in a scene where such a switch occurs pretty much every other second. Ah, well. That lets me briefly touch on the character expressions. Note the last 20 or so seconds of the sequence where Victor’s absolute shock-filled terror turns to a confident evil-scheming smile as Gromit slowly sinks back in his chair. See how smooth that change is? Instead of quickly switching from pose-to-pose, that extra attention to detail goes into both actions to make the whole thing that much more menacing. It encapsulates the best moments of the film’s animation, for me, where they put in the extra detail and work to make certain expressions and actions carry more weight. It’s why I can’t not find the times where Gromit walks like a dog adorably funny, because of the specific way his legs are animated.
Are you aware that there are 700 different shots in Curse Of The Were-Rabbit that involve CGI in some way? No? Well, that’s exactly my point. The integration of CGI and stop-motion in this film is so near-seamless that I mentally kicked myself when I found out that sequences like the floating bunnies in the Bun-Vac and the rolling fog were accomplished with CG instead of stop-motion. Like, duh, of course I should have figured that out but it was so convincing! Likewise, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Were-Rabbit transformation was achieved with CG instead of stop-motion. You’d be wrong. There aren’t even any CG augmentations made to the bit, it’s all done in stop-motion, as demonstrated by this featurette embedded before the next time stamp. That shot of the foot transformation? That took a year. A year.
Two things to take away from this. One: in case it weren’t abundantly clear already, Aardman did not cut corners anywhere on this thing. Two: if it’s good enough and it fits the art-style of the rest of the film as closely as possible, you can add little CG augmentations to a stop-motion animated film and nobody will be the wiser. Laika would recognise this and put it to good work in 2012’s stunning ParaNorman (which, yes, is a thing I did have to bring up because ParaNorman deserves bringing up at every opportunity).
0:54:12 – 0:55:43 First of all, that cross-fade/match-cut between Totty and the cloud is something I have just now noticed and subsequently fallen in love with. Now, very quickly (because my word limit is coming up fast, here), let’s talk Hutch. Hutch, upon first impression and especially if you were to know about his existence without having seen a frame of the film, seems like a giant walking alarm bell of studio interference. A late-film comic relief character who only speaks in repurposed Wallace lines, whose appearance is hilariously cute, will likely be adored by kids and who turns up just as the film seems like it’s going to barrel down Serious Drama Street? You can probably understand scepticism to him on paper and if said paper was the first time someone had heard of him.
All one needs to immediately discredit such notions is to watch this little scene. See, rather than painfully contrasting Wallace’s heartbreaking breakdown over the possibility that he may remain a Were-Rabbit for good and sucking the drama out of the scene, Hutch instead compliments the scene. The delivery and the line itself (taken from A Close Shave, unless I’m mistaken) may be excessively cheery, but that’s the point. Hutch clearly sympathises with Wallace and Gromit in this situation but, because of the way the mind alteration has worked, that’s all he can say, it’s the only way he can say it and, as demonstrated a few seconds later, he can be a bit slow on the uptake with things. It’s a very, very clever design choice that makes Hutch a full-on character, no matter how subtly, rather than just a hilarious joke machine – as, yes, it’s also a perfectly timed line with a perfectly timed delivery so one can’t be annoyed it.
And I’ve sailed past the word count limit. Well, I would love to sit here and talk more about The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, about the other things it does right and favourite scenes and there was going to be a full-on paragraph where I just rattle off my favourite quotes from it, but you are busy people with places to be. Specifically places that involve watching this near-perfect movie on DVD. I mean, what kind of horrible person doesn’t own all Wallace & Gromit releases on DVD? Not the kind of horrible people I want to know, at any rate!
In all seriousness, though, this film really is Aardman’s feature-length masterpiece and as near-perfect a film as one will find. Due to the ailing health of Peter Sallis, this will most likely be the duo’s only trip to the big screen, but I am OK with that because it is one hell of a trip and to try again would be to risk that reputation. I say retire Wallace & Gromit and leave the legacy to grow. The series as a whole is near-perfect and it deserves to go out on the high that it has (or slightly diminished high if you want to count A Matter Of Loaf Or Death) rather than taking any further risks.
Although it wasn’t quite the financial smash they were hoping it to be, DreamWorks Animation still continued their absurdly financially successful streak of films with Wallace & Gromit, along with the prestige of the company’s third Academy Award – although that one belonged to Aardman more than it did DreamWorks. They were riding a four-film and two-year streak that could seriously have made other studios wonder if there was any foot the company could put wrong financially. Their next film would only add more strength to such a viewpoint and even win back some critical respect, too. Next week, we enter 2006 and take a look at Over The Hedge.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!