There's a corner of the animation world that's forever England -- a claymation universe where every brick row house has its proud vegetable garden, where modern dentistry has yet to make serious inroads, and where man's best friend and intellectual superior is his dog.
This is the tidy absurdist world of Nick Park, creator of the Oscar-winning ''Wallace & Gromit" shorts, 2000's hit ''Chicken Run," and the exquisitely daft ''Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," codirected with Steve Box. The new film is supposedly a kiddie movie, and if you have children or can borrow some on short notice, they'll certainly enjoy themselves. It takes an adult sensibility, though, to appreciate silliness this finely tuned. Even more than ''Chicken Run," ''Were-Rabbit" is a tiny plasticine masterpiece.
Audiences familiar with shorts like 1993's ''The Wrong Trousers" have a leg up, so for newcomers: Wallace (voice of Peter Sallis) is a balding, bug-eyed, large-toothed inventor of tinker-toy contraptions that usually take the long way around to do something quite simple. Eternally optimistic and equally dense, he's the picture of gormless pluck, with a cheese fetish the Monty Python gang might understand. ''Ah, but I do love a bit of gorgonzola" is the closest Wallace has come to a life statement, and it serves.
All great comic boobs need a partner, and Wallace has his unspeaking dog Gromit, able to express infinite gradations of dismay with a tilt of his clay brows. When ''Were-Rabbit" opens, the two are running a successful concern ridding local gardens of rabbits in anticipation of the upcoming Giant Vegetable Competition, overseen, as always, by Lady Campanula Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter). With their Anti-Pesto van's BunniVac machine, the heroes are able to suck up dozens of the adorably stupid little rodents per second, giving Gromit more time to tend to his prize melon (he keeps it under an electric blanket set on ''cozy").
Unable to leave well enough alone and flustered by the attentions of Lady T., Wallace sets out to cure the bunnies once and for all, hooking his experimental thought-wave machine to the BunniVac for some ''harmless brain manipulation, that's all." In short order, a hulking monster lepus is stalking the neighborhood gardens, ravishing the turnips and terrifying the vicar.
Before certain complications are revealed, Wallace hopes to catch the Were-Rabbit by peaceful means, while Lady Tottington's fortune-hunting gentleman friend Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes) has a blunderbuss and aims to use it. The Lady herself is torn -- ''Victor hasn't shown any interest in my produce," she sighs after showing Wallace to her secret garden high in Tottington Manor -- and Bonham Carter gets the character's twee, horsey cadences just right. Between this and ''Corpse Bride," the actress is showing more animation than she has in years.
''Curse of the Were-Rabbit" gets increasingly manic as it goes, riffing on everything from ''King Kong" to ''Harvey" to ''Snoopy vs. the Red Baron," and it's not above putting a cotton-candy B-52's bouffant hairdo on its villain to get a laugh. More than anything, though, the movie's infused with Park's eye for the droll, for naughty blink-and-you'll-miss-them sight gags (keep a lookout for the cardboard box Wallace wears toward the end), and, the biggest joke of all, for the ingrained British desire to not make a fuss. It's hard to keep a stiff upper lip when you're facing down an 800-stone rabbit.
Those lips are made of clay, of course -- ropy red outlines any kid could make with enough Play-Doh. Park and his creative team spent five years making ''Curse," though, and it shows in each smudgy, painstakingly crafted detail. What does it say when this, the stop-motion puppetry of ''Corpse Bride," and Hayao Miyazaki's hand-drawn ''Howl's Moving Castle" have provided the best and richest animated experiences of the year? It says that CGI cartoons have a long way to go before they acquire a visual soul.
The soul of ''Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" could best be described as sharing the qualities of its hero's favorite cheese, Stinking Bishop, which a quick Google informs me has ''a pungent and spirited aroma." Exactly. Now get yourself to a theater and inhale.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.