Lumpy and tuberish, the clay-on-wire creations of animator Nick Park sag with the weight of years. Their eyes are rueful, their doughy fingers flutter with uncertainty, and their teeth bear the telltale signs of British dental care. And yet they inhabit a world of such friskiness and grace and invention that they grow radiant before our eyes. Who’d have guessed that clay could feel so light?

Over the course of three television shorts, Park and his colleagues have ingeniously varied a simple formula: Cheese-loving inventor Wallace responds to some household imperative, things get out of hand, and Wallace’s restlessly brilliant dog, Gromit, saves the day. In A Grand Day Out, the pair went in search of cheese—and ran afoul of a lunar-dwelling robot. In The Wrong Trousers, they took in a lodger—and ran afoul of a larcenous penguin. In A Close Shave, they found a lamb hiding out in their house—and ran afoul of a ring of sheep hustlers. With each of these impeccably realized adventures, man and dog have created a bond of such rich domesticity that each new installment feels, for the series’ fans, like a return home.

Now, like all hot properties, our loamy heroes get to make their big-screen debut. And any concerns that their droll sensibilities might be flattened out by the cineplex may now be set aside. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is at once a Wodehousian lark, a Mel Brooks– style movie parody, and a manifesto of artistic retrenchment that Chaplin himself might have endorsed.

Just as the Little Tramp went on making silent movies well after the advent of sound, Park has greeted the brave new world of CGI by doing what he’s always done: molding and remolding mounds of clay one shot at a time. Thanks to this Luddite ethos, Were-Rabbit required some 250 Aardman Animation employees—including co-director and longtime Park collaborator Steve Box—to toil for five years. But the amazing thing isn’t that thousands upon thousands of hours were spent getting everything down to the hand-painted wallpaper just so. It’s that you’re never conscious of the effort.

Consider it an animator’s joke, then, that Wallace’s various household inventions labor away so visibly, so madly—and to achieve such small ends. In the opening sequences, we watch once more as a dizzying chain of Rube Goldberg gizmos scoots the inhabitants of 62 W. Wallaby St. from bed to breakfast, in and out of clothes, to and from work. Since last we saw them, the pair have embarked on a new entrepreneurial venture: a humane rodent-control outfit called Anti-Pesto that specializes in protecting plus-sized fruits and vegetables and the marauding animals that would otherwise eat them.

After vacuuming a drove of bunnies from the local manor’s lawn, Wallace and Gromit win a new patroness in Lady Campanula Tottington (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter, the reigning queen of stop-motion). Her ladyship keeps a private greenhouse and is herself alarmingly vegetative, with a shock of orange hair that looks like a levitating carrot. Comely only by the standards of Aardman, she’s just the sort to awaken the erotic interest of Wallace (Peter Sallis) and the nonromantic interest of Victor Quartermaine (the vocally unrecognizable Ralph Fiennes), a toupeed outdoorsman with designs on Lady Tottingham’s millions.

Wallace and Quartermaine soon get the chance to war for their lady’s hand when a giant rabbit begins to terrorize local gardens, threatening the upcoming produce festival. The gun-crazed Quartermaine wants nothing more than to shoot and kill the creature, while Wallace takes the gentler tack of humane capture. The fact that this were-rabbit happens to be the unintended spawn of Wallace’s own experiments in “harmless brain alteration” raises the stakes considerably.

The plot of Were-Rabbit is no more complex than those of the three previous Wallace & Gromit films, which were full-length in conception, if not duration. The main difference is that Park can open up his fictional canvas to a whole village’s worth of foils: sturdy, bunioned middle-class archetypes of no particular era whose most passionate and unruly emotions are reserved for their gardens. Clay serves these people. They move slowly, living in a kind of geological time. You could reasonably believe that for whole stretches of their days, they sit entirely still, husbanding their powers toward an unknown end.

The larger scope also allows Park’s characters to develop in new ways. Wallace, for instance, must cope with the indignities of seeing his traits grafted onto a rabbit and, at the same time, must confront the darker possibilities within himself. But the movie’s moral center is Gromit, the world’s smartest dog. His unswerving loyalty to the hapless Wallace is never explained. Indeed, Gromit himself doesn’t seem to understand it; he can only enact it in ever more creative ways. He has a Keatonesque stoicism in the face of unalterable physical realities, and the very things that would seem to limit his expressiveness as a character—his lack of voice, his lack of mouth—give him a wonderfully reticent charm.

In one sequence, we find him inside the Anti-Pesto van, working the wires of a decoy she-rabbit. Wallace asks for something “a bit more alluring,” and Gromit pauses for just a beat before launching into a classic bump-and-grind striptease. It’s funny, sure, but also oddly poignant: the plight of a pure, nearly disinterested intelligence, undone because it can’t be disinterested enough. Gromit’s allegiance keeps tipping him into absurdity.

To be fair, the transition from small screen to big hasn’t been entirely seamless. The climactic airborne dogfight between Gromit and Quartermaine’s attack cur echoes a similar, and better, sequence in A Close Shave. Quartermaine—his name, presumably, an ironic nod to H. Rider Haggard’s great-white-hunter hero, Allan Quatermain—is too ridiculous a figure to generate much in the way of menace. (And that’s plenty ridiculous: Park & Co. have achieved scarier by having a small penguin put on a rubber glove.)

But why pick at bones when there’s such a feast at hand? Gags that recall the best of The Simpsons. (Outraged villagers, in hot pursuit of the giant bunny, stop at an “Angry Mob Supplies” booth.) Marvelous vocal turns by Peter Kay as a skeptical policeman and Nicholas Smith as a blithering vicar (Startled from reverie by the were-rabbit’s massive belch, the latter peers into the darkness and cautiously inquires, “Mrs. Mulch?”) Even a few moments of light ribaldry, which will fly well over the head of the average 6-year-old. (Suffice it to say that Gromit’s little dance isn’t one of them.) And, tying it all together, a clean narrative line—the quality most conspicuously lacking from the season’s other stop-motion entry, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. Whereas Burton and his animators subsumed everything to design, Park & Co. made design servant to story and character—though their meticulously rendered world still looks great, just old-fashioned enough to seem radical.

A word of caution to meat-eaters such as myself: All of Park’s films—from his extraordinary debut short, Creature Comforts, to his previous feature, Chicken Run—are, at some level, briefs for animal rights. It’s a measure of his delicacy that he can make this cause register as nothing more (or less) than an act of human self-preservation. All it takes is seeing Gromit save Wallace’s ass one more time to realize that, without animals, civilization cannot stand. Pass the sprouts, already.CP