Admittedly, the smile isn’t quite as elastic, the nose considerably less bulbous, the buck teeth moderately less protrusive. But there’s no denying that Oscar-winning animator Nick Park bears more than a passing resemblance to one of his two most famous clay creations — specifically, the lactose-overindulgent amateur inventor Wallace, who along with his faithful, silent-suffering canine companion, Gromit, has starred in a series of Park-directed adventures over the last two decades. Fortunately, Park doesn’t mind the comparison. “In a way, because they both came out of my head somewhere, I sometimes think of Wallace and Gromit as two parts of me,” he tells me last month at the Toronto Film Festival. “I can really relate to Gromit. He’s the one who observes everything and longs for this kind of quiet life of order — and that’s me, really. But he’s got this other side to him, this alter-ego, or maybe my alter-ego, who has mad ideas and goes off on tangents. And Gromit’s constantly chasing the consequences.”
Created by Park during his student years at Britain’s Sheffield City Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University), Wallace and Gromit were introduced to the world by the 1989 short A Grand Day Out, in which Wallace’s momentary cheese shortage prompts him to, quite logically, build a rocket ship to the moon. (Because, “Everybody knows the moon’s made of cheese.”) The film, which started life as Park’s graduation project, was completed with help from Aardman, the groundbreaking animation company co-founded in the 1970s by Peter Lord and David Sproxton. It went on to earn an Oscar nomination for best animated short (losing to Park’s own Creature Comforts, which used interviews with ordinary Brits on the subject of housing conditions as the soundtrack for a movie about animals in a zoo). Since then, Park’s sublimely bumbling duo have returned in The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995), winning two Oscars of their own in the process.
Still, Wallace and Gromit had never been asked to sustain more than 30 minutes of screen time, and so it was with understandable trepidation that Park, flush with the success of 2000’s Chicken Run(co-directed with Lord), began to contemplate a feature-length Wallace & Gromitadventure. “The danger,” he says, “was that the shorts might have worked because they were short.”
Such fears prove completely unwarranted in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, an absurd and affectionate tribute to old Universal and Hammer horror pictures, with Wallace as the “humane pest control” man whose efforts to rid a northern England town of its rampant rabbit infestation inadvertently gives rise to the shape-shifting super bunny of the title. (Naturally, it falls to Gromit to somehow save the day.) Though the plotting may be more elaborate than in the past, the film (which Park co-directed with his longtime collaborator, Steve Box) possesses the elemental modesty and handcrafted textures that have remained constants in the Wallace & Gromitequation. As Park puts it, he wants viewers to “see the thumbprints” on his characters’ plasticine physiognomies.
“I don’t want it to get too slick, too finished,” Park says. “It’s funny, because an awful lot of finesse goes into this work, but I guess it’s like seeing an impressionist painting — the brush strokes are part of the aesthetic, and if you lose that, you lose some kind of connection. Everybody’s played with kids’ modeling clay, so you can kind of connect with it that way. It’s important not to cover it up, and yet to still create the illusion.”
With any luck, it’s an illusion that will continue for some time to come. “I don’t know what will be next,” Park says. “But,” he adds, glancing down at the replica Wallace and Gromit figurines adorning the table in front of him, “I can’t help but think of new ideas for them. They seem to think up their own ideas these days, actually. They have an independence. They write themselves.”