<EM>Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit</EM> Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

What does it take to make a box-office champion? Five painstaking years, a delicate touch and a whole lot of clay. Or, at least, such was the case with Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the clay-animated feature that dominated theaters this past weekend with its wickedly clever tale of the titular twosome's endeavor to save Lady Tottington's Giant Vegetable Competition from the hungry hooks of an equally oversize bunny. Considering the effort that went into stretching a Wallace and Gromit adventure from the usual 30 minutes (as in their three short film outings) into nearly thrice that, you'd better believe that the story is set in stone before the first Plasticine pumpkin is formed.

"The story is the most important thing," Wallace and Gromit's creator, Nick Park, tells TVGuide.com. Park, who codirected Were-Rabbit, likens his stop-animation technique — precisely repositioning figurines of clay before each individual frame of film, 24 per second of screen time, is snapped — more to live-action that traditional cartoon animation. "Because it is a three-dimensional space we're working in, there is an earthiness to it," he adds, "and yet wacky things can happen."

But not too wacky. "You can't just make things happen," he points out. "There are rules of gravity [to follow] and everything."

As Park and his Aardman Features production company (which, with DreamWorks Animation, also produced 2000's Chicken Run) continue to push that envelope of clay's possibilities, he cops to getting the occasional assist from modern CGI trickery. For example, Wallace and Gromit's "Anti-Pesto" rabbit-retrieval service features the Bun-Vac 6000, a machine which literally sucks colonies of bunnies out of their earthen cubbies and into an air chamber in which they blissfully float. Calling the contraption his favorite effect in the film, Park says, "That was just one example where it would be just impossible for the [clay] animator to get in there and animate." To maintain the film's distinctive look and not have the CG critters appear too slick and smooth, he says, "We gave [the computer animators] one little clay bunny and they scanned that in — fingerprints and all."

Another first for Aardman was the large, lumbering, veggie-ravaging Were-Rabbit itself, whose furry pelt and added heft presented new challenges to stop-animators. "We could have done it digitally with CGI," says Park, "but we were kind of referencing old movies like King Kong or Mighty Joe Young, so I didn't mind if it did twitch a bit."

While Gromit (being a dog) is mute and Wallace is voiced by Brit acting vet Peter Sallis, Park recruited Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes to bring Were-Rabbit's Lady Tottington and her pompous would-be paramour, Victor Quartermaine, to life. "It is really amazing to be able to have actors like Ralph and Helena just agree to do it immediately," Park marvels. "And then when we get them in and get them to fool around and play it out, it's good fun."