Wallace & Gromit make their long-overdue feature debut.

Say Cheese 

Wallace & Gromit make their long-overdue feature debut.

Ah, Wallace and Gromit. Who doesn't get a little lift at the sound of those names? Who doesn't feel his or her heart grow warmer at the thought of the love between a (Plasticine) man and his (Plasticine) dog? Perhaps you're not among the considerable fanbase surrounding this lovable couple — the mild-mannered, cheese-loving inventor and the beleaguered canine genius — who issue from Aardman Animation at regular intervals. You should be. This is delightful stuff.

Headed by Nick Park, Aardman is the inventive English studio that brought us the glorious Chicken Run in 2000. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is the first feature-length film starring the studio's signature characters. Any work of claymation seems a miracle, requiring the painstaking labor of hand-positioning each frame, with 24 frames to every second of film. (I'll spare you the math: That's 1,440 frames a minute, 86,400 an hour, and approximately 130,000 for a 90-minute feature.) What's so incredible about Aardman's work is that, in addition to crafting hilarious and evocative figures that are a pleasure to watch, and in addition to animating them with extreme care, including tiny nuances of facial expression, Park inserts countless clever details: a drill made by a company called Botch, a diploma from Dogwarts, an electric blanket with the dial turned to "Cozy." The result is an experience rich in pleasure and surprise, one that easily stands up to multiple viewings.

Were-Rabbit opens in a vegetable patch with the cloak-and-dagger, spy-movie intrigue of attempted burglary and arrest (shadows, music, lasers, carrots, rabbits). Asleep in their beds, Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis) and Gromit (silent — he's a dog, remember?) are awakened by their high-tech alarm system and catapulted through a series of chutes and mechanized readying devices into their clothes and car. In no time, they arrive on the scene to bag the rabbit culprit. The client is thrilled, and Wallace and Gromit are heroes. In a country town obsessed with growing oversized vegetables, they run Anti-Pesto, a humane pest-control service that catches rabbits rather than killing them.

But where do the rabbits go? In the basement, it turns out. And there are rather a lot of them, especially after Wallace and Gromit rabbit-vacuum the infested estate of Lady Campanula Tottington (played with adorable gravity by Helena Bonham Carter). The bunnies are breeding like rabbits, and Wallace wonders if he can convince them not to eat "veg." All it will take is a spell in the Mind-Manipulation-o-Matic. But that simple piece of machinery has not yet been perfected, and Gromit sniffs trouble. Big trouble. Refer at this point to the title of the film.

Were-Rabbit's jokes kill in the kiddie demographic — for instance, the physical buffoonery of hunter Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes). It's also loaded with puns and pop-culture references that tickle adults. The film refers, at various times, to Frankenstein, King Kong, Harry Potter, and countless horror and action movies, including, of course, the werewolf genre.

Were-Rabbit lacks Chicken Run's rousing sense of mission, and it ends weakly, but it remains a treat. After all, how can you resist a film in which Ralph Fiennes says, "You can say goodbye to your fluffy loverboy"?

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