WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT written by Steve Box, Nick Park, Bob Baker and Mark Burton, directed by Park, with voices by Peter Sallis, Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes. A DreamWorks/Aardman release. 85 minutes. Opens Friday (October 7). For venues and times, see Movies, page 99. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Nick Park is the centre of attention today, but you'd never know it by looking at him.
The soft-spoken creator of Wallace and Gromit, the claymation duo who helped earn him international praise and two of his three best animated short Oscars, personifies the word timid.
Even though an entire wing of the Four Seasons is devoted to press for his new feature film, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, you get the feeling he'd rather be up in his suite, manipulating the plasticine cheese-lover Wallace and his faithful, silent canine Gromit, than yakking with a bunch of journalists at the Toronto International Film Festival.
But Park is used to being patient. Claymation is a painstaking process, requiring the movement of clay figures by hand. One animator averages about five seconds of film - per week.
"We tweak the characters in tiny increments, but we have direct contact with the clay on every single frame of the film - every 24th of a second," explains Park about the process.
"It's like live action, really, except slower. And somehow, you can imbue a character with soul. You're slowly nudging them and teasing out the character."
Were-Rabbit, a clever send-up of the classic werewolf story, concerns a ravenous monster rabbit who's destroying a town's produce before the big vegetable competition.
To prepare for the film, Park and his co-writers screened Universal horror films from the late 1930s and early 40s, including the classic The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr.
"We were also looking for those terrific secondary characters, like the skeptical policeman and the vicar who seems to know a lot about the supernatural," he laughs.
For the lead human characters - Helena Bonham Carter voices the upper-class, eco-obsessed Lady Tottington, while Ralph Fiennes plays her cad of a suitor, Victor Quartermaine - they screened films like Barry Lyndon and Wuthering Heights to get that feeling of aristocratic pomposity.
"Helena tried on a pair of prosthetic teeth and her voice completely changed," says Park. "We used that sound for tests, although she didn't keep them in for the recording. She wouldn't have been able to speak."
It's hard to imagine Park laying down the law in the director's chair, especially with a co-director (Steve Box), several writers and DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg occasionally visiting the set.
"I ultimately made the call," Park says. "With any controversy, I had the creative veto on everything, which is unheard of with a Hollywood studio."
One thing he's changed his mind on recently has been commercial tie-ins and endorsements.
"I haven't put out Wallace and Gromit dolls till now, mostly because I don't want to fill the world with more trash," he says. "But now we have a whole department that knows how to make a good doll."
As for commercial endorsements, he sighs and says some lean times in the studio have forced him to plug products.
"We're trying to choose carefully," he says. "In Britain, Wallace and Gromit advertise cheese, crackers and tea."
WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT
(Nick Park, Steve Box) Rating: NNNN
Nick Park's cheese-loving inventor and his smart but silent canine make an impressive feature debut as the owners and operators of Anti-Pesto, a humane company that protects their peaceful Brit suburb from rabbits. When one of Wallace's inventions backfires and creates a veggie-devouring monster - part werewolf of London, part King Kong - they have to capture it before the upcoming vegetable competition is ruined.
The claymation is superb, especially the demented look of the sweet but batty Lady Tottington (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) and her gold-digging suitor Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes). The script is full of jokes and puns that reference pop culture - especially horror films - with as much irreverent wit as the best Simpsons episodes.