Wallace & Gromit jump into movies -- The Oscar-winning claymation are finally taking on the big screen

When he was still running Disney animation in the early ’90S, Jeffrey Katzenberg started courting a tiny studio in England called Aardman. The Bristol-based outfit wasn’t terribly well-known in the U.S. — at least, not until a writer-director named Nick Park began handcrafting a series of short films starring toothy, slightly cross-eyed clay figures, posed and photographed one frame at a time. Park’s most popular characters, a cheese-addicted inventor named Wallace and his mute canine sidekick, Gromit, starred in three adventures, the latter two snagging Oscars for Best Animated Short. ”Nobody else in the world does what they do,” says Katzenberg of Park and his colleagues. ”It doesn’t walk, talk, or look like anything else.” ? Katzenberg couldn’t convince them to ally themselves with Disney, but once he left the Mouse House to form DreamWorks Animation — today a hit machine, having turned out the Shreks, Shark Tale, and Madagascar — he went after Aardman again and finally got them. ”I have absolutely no understanding of the word no,” the exec says. ”’Not yet’ or ‘not now’ is as far as you can get with me.”

What Katzenberg wanted, by many accounts, was a Wallace and Gromit movie. But Park didn’t want to risk his beloved characters in a freshman feature. Instead, he hatched 2000’s Chicken Run, a prison-break parody he codirected with Peter Lord in which Mel Gibson starred as the voice of a cocky Yankee rooster. Result? A worldwide gross of $224 million. Aardman’s planned follow-up, Tortoise and the Hare, wound up shelved, seemingly a mutual decision between DreamWorks and Aardman. (Katzenberg says it could still get made.) So, finally, Park decided to feature-ize Wallace and Gromit with the horror spoof The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (opening Oct. 7) — and, on the strength of Chicken Run, to do it his way.

”We’ve been able to have this deal with Jeffrey where I get complete creative control,” says Park. ”We were never happy with any [potential] deal at Disney. It just wasn’t good for us in terms of ownership of our characters, and we weren’t really ready to let go of our crown jewels.”

Over several years, Park worked out a story line about a lycanthropic bunny ravaging neighborhood gardens by the light of a full moon. As he labored with codirector Steve Box and two other writers to settle the specifics, DreamWorks reportedly raised the possibility of recasting Peter Sallis, the distinctively Northern-English voice of Wallace. Park declined, politely but irrevocably. Okay, said DreamWorks, but you’ve got to get some names known in America. Eventually, Helena Bonham Carter came aboard to play noble-born Lady Tottington, and Ralph Fiennes the villain Victor Quartermaine.

The shoot, which began in the fall of 2003, took about 18 months, and reportedly cost in the neighborhood of $60 million. That means it may have been significantly more expensive than the $40 million Corpse Bride, the fall’s other stop-motion opus — which Katzenberg says he’s not worried about competing with, since it’s not a G-rated family picture like Were-Rabbit. Katzenberg did fret over whether a bumper crop of gently bawdy, Benny Hill-esque double entendres ought to be trimmed. Park argued that they got the biggest laughs and should stay. ”We wanted to be cheeky, but retain a sense of innocence,” he explains. ”It was a difficult balance. I think DreamWorks was kind of worried that it might upset certain people if we were too coarse.”

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
  • Movie
  • 85 minutes