Call Nick Park old-fashioned, but in an era dominated by computer-generated animation, he still likes working with clay. Park has been animating clay for more than 15 years, his fantastic success is evidenced by four Oscar nominations and three wins. Throughout it all he's had two very friendly faces with him: Wallace and Gromit.

Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis) is a loveable inventor with a penchant for cheese matched only by his absentmindedness. Gromit is Wallace's dog, and like many trusty sidekicks, it's up to him to make sure Wallace stays out of trouble. Park admits, "Originally, Gromit was to be a cat, but it proved easier to work in clay with a dog." It was also planned that Gromit was going to have a voice, but Park found that animating the dog's mouth became too difficult and instead focused on Gromit's facial expressions for communication.

The two chums were featured in three short adventures in the early '90s, but moved to the back burner when DreamWorks greenlit Park's hugely successful first feature, Chicken Run. After that hit, Park received the go-ahead for a full length Wallace & Gromit film.

Park describes Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit as "a vegetable horror movie." The film starts out in a quiet countryside town in England that's bonkers about vegetables. Wallace and Gromit have pooled their talents to cash in on the veggie-mania by helping to control the rabbit population until the annual "Giant Vegetable Festival" takes place. They invent a machine called the Bunny Vac 6000 which carefully sucks the bunnies up and shoots them down into underground colonies; not surprisingly, something goes wrong with the invention, and a terrible Were-Rabbit is set loose.

Park notes that the manner in which he and his crew approached this film is similar to the previous Wallace & Gromit shorts: he looks at a certain film style, period or director and transfers that material into Wallace and Gromit's world. The inspiration for The Curse of the Were-Rabbit lies in the Universal monster movies of the '30s and '40s; the concept of the Were-Rabbit was decided first, and from that point the team devised the rest of the story and situations.

But despite all the machination, Park's real love is working with clay; this becomes clear when the filmmaker concedes that even his new movie features a little bit of computer animation. "Some scenes had to be done in [CG] because of how cramped it got for the animators," Park says. "The Bunny Vac scene, they did that with [CG], but they put on thumbprints to make the models look like they were hand molded." Still, the CG looks identical to the normal models, an effect Park undoubtedly likes.

Altogether, Park worked with a team more than five times the size he is used to, but they've been able to weave together a mature, sophisticated film. Though the production process took more than five years, the writing and humor are quite sharp, something that Park was always worried about. The large size of the animation team also allowed Park to apply a technique he refers to as "Go-Motion" -- moving the background of the frames while maintaining the posture of the characters. "The result is real Star Wars stuff," Park jokes.

Keeping in mind the global appeal of Wallace & Gromit, Park explains, "DreamWorks reminded us that the film had to appeal to American audiences as well as British, but I didn't really think about that. I just went with my instincts." Park's instincts are as sharp as ever; Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a charming film with plenty of laughs for both children and the young at heart. With a longer running time, Nick Park's dynamic duo go in directions they hadn't before, and the result is simply smashing.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit opens tomorrow. It is rated G.


All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.