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Fans of Wallace and Gromit, which is to say virtually all acquaintances of Wallace and Gromit, will welcome their first feature-length excursion no matter how much extra baggage they bring along on it. The official title alone, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, demands a handcart. (How nice it would have been to start straight off with The Curse.... ) Nick Park's claymation creations -- the crackpot inventor who's "crackers about cheese" and his silent, watchful, wary, undyingly loyal yet healthily skeptical pet pooch -- have not changed a whit in their nine-year absence from the screen. Things around them, though, have changed to a degree.

The just shy of an hour-and-a-half running time is as long as their three previous outings put together. But because the pacing is as expert as ever, it flies by in what feels like maybe, oh, an hour flat, where the earlier half-hours -- A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave -- felt proportionately like twenty minutes tops. The necessarily more elaborate or elongated plotline involves an annual Giant Vegetable Competition staged without interruption for centuries: "Not even the Great Duck Plague of '53 stopped it." The natural enemy of these competitive gardeners, the veggie-nibbling rabbit, is kept under control through the "humane" disposal methods of Anti-Pesto, the latest brainchild of our human hero: in essence a giant vacuum cleaner, christened the Bun-Vac 6000, to suck the little rodents out of their holes and deposit them in the cellar for bed and board. When the crackpot inventor tries to take it a step further and "brainwash the bunnies," when he in other words takes a step toward the Mad Scientist ("Say no to carrots, cabbage, and cauliflower," he hypnotically intones), something goes horribly awry, and the plot veers off into a horror-film pastiche that deftly stitches together a Frankensteinian composite of the Wolfman, the Fly, and King Kong. All of this calls for a larger population of supporting characters than Wallace and Gromit are accustomed to, and the Mr. Potatohead variations on the basic button-eyed, jug-eared physical form, through differing lips, eyebrows, hairdos, etc., are endlessly inventive: the puffy spun-sugar coif of the local vicar (sprinkling his veggies with holy water and perusing Pro Nun Wrestling Magazine on the sly), the ten-gallon toupee of the trigger-happy Great White Hunter (the "inhumane" alternative to Anti-Pesto), the horizontal carrot-shaped carrot-top on the titled hostess of the contest (the love interest), and so on.

The unprecedented contamination, unprecedented for Wallace and Gromit anyway, of traditional stop-motion animation with newfangled computer-generated imagery -- primarily for the multiple rabbits and some "special effects" of fog, smoke, an explosion, and the like -- doubtless sullies the purism of their hermetically enclosed world. But this is more bothersome in principle than in actual spectacle. These distinct animation techniques in fact blend very well. They are sometimes, more and more often nowadays, difficult for the naked eye to tell apart. And the human touch, in any event, still shows in the imperfect texture of the plasticine figures, in their limited movements, and in the overall illusion that you are watching a live-action film of three-dimensional space, of sets, camera angles, and lighting, of mise-en-scène. The illusion is not really an illusion at all. The space, the sets, the angles, the lighting, all exist in the real world, together with the race of foot-tall homunculi. More problematic, perhaps, is the spicing up of the traditional cozy, genteel, droll, understated British humor -- traditional British humor, that is, prior to the Goon Show and Monty Python -- with a peppering of the salty and the dirty. Though the spice may be mild by the standards of the contemporary marketplace, in specific the standards of the computer-animation marketplace, one can't help but feel that co-directors Nick Park and Steve Box have bent a little to peer pressure. What one would prefer to see instead is for them to exert some pressure on their peers (meaning their inferiors) in matters of timing, touch, and taste.

* * *

I liked Curtis Hanson better when he was making modest genre films along the lines of The Bedroom Window, Bad Influence, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and The River Wild. But then he made an immodest one, L.A. Confidential, from an unwieldy novel by James Ellroy, and launched himself as the roving "social" chronicler of Wonder Boys, 8 Mile, and now In Her Shoes. I don't know the Jennifer Weiner book on which the latest is based, but the film itself I found to be lightly, mildly, breezily entertaining in a second-rate, best-sellerish, chick-lit kind of way: the seriocomic story of two mismatched Jewish sisters, one an overweight, high-achieving Philadelphia lawyer whose private life consists of romance novels and a shoe fetish, and the other a rootless mooching dyslexic sexpot. (Or, in their traded insults, a "fat pig" and "pretty but real stupid.") After they have a major falling-out and a parting-of-the-ways, the first finds love with a too-good-to-be-true emasculated dreamboat (albeit a 76ers fan), and the second finds self-worth shopping for the old ladies in a Florida retirement community and reading poetry to a blind professor, while conquering her dyslexia, at the Assisted Living Center. And they then find their way back to each other. Yay, team.

The scene of a man and a woman reading aloud from a romance novel as sexual foreplay is good for a laugh; and the sight of a Bikini Babe around the old folks' swimming pool is good for a few; and Shirley MacLaine, as the long-lost grandmother, can still handle a line and a look. The casting of Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz as the sisters, on the other hand, is somewhat hard to swallow. Forget, if you can, their ostensible Jewishness. Collette, though she's reported to have packed on twenty-five pounds for the part, still looks well under the national norm and nowhere near her Muriel's Wedding weight. And Diaz, though she wears her clothes well, especially the eensy-weensy ones, fails to reveal any depths beneath. Even she can't quite botch the lump-in-the-throat recitation of E.E. Cummings at the wedding, but she's more in her element when she gets to kick up her heels afterwards.

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