No, the title isn’t encouraging. Together with the marketing — “From the creators of Shrek and Madagascar” — it threatens at best cheerfully coarse gross-out humor, at worst a film that deserves the fate suggested by that ominous title.
There is, though, one hint of promise in the trailers and posters: It’s in the characters’ eyes. Though Flushed Away is yet another CGI cartoon in this year of an unprecedented glut of CGI cartoons, look at the eyes, and you’ll see the unmistakable family resemblance to Wallace, Gromit and all those bunnies from The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, not to mention the fowl protagonists — and fouler chicken farmers — of Chicken Run.
Yes, Flushed Away is from Aardman Animations, until now known solely for their stop-motion plasticine wizardry and dotty British humor. Flushed Away is their first foray into computer animation, though the characters still look as if they were designed the old-fashioned Aardman way, with clay-like ropes of hair and marble-shaped eyeballs in sockets a size too big for them. It’s like how Brad Bird developed The Incredibles as a traditional hand-drawn follow-up to The Iron Giant before teaming up with Pixar and making the film in CGI; it’s using CGI in a way that most CGI films don’t.
If Flushed Away doesn’t reach the heights of demented genius of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit or even the lesser charms of Chicken Run, it’s still got a goofy inventiveness that puts it in the better half of this year’s crop of CGI films, along with Cars, Over the Hedge, Ice Age 2: The Meltdown, and Monster House, and above The Ant Bully, The Wild, and Barnyard.
The story follows a familiar template, combining elements of Blue Sky’s Robots and Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove: A character leaves home and discovers a larger world he knew nothing about, becomes involved in the lives of a cheerfully rowdy family of characters who face challenges the protagonist has never contemplated, and with their help overcomes the machinations of the villain scheming to take over everything.
Roddy St. James (Hugh Jackman) is a pampered pet rat whose laddish but lonely existence in a posh Kensington Gardens flat is a bit like Hugh Grant’s in About a Boy. When his owners leave on holiday, Roddy has the run of the house — but his home-alone hijinks are rudely interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Sid (Shane Richie), a loutish sewer rat who pops out of the sink, and to Roddy’s horror starts making himself at home.
As sometimes happens, the affluent Roddy makes the mistake of underestimating the plebeian Sid’s sophistication; and his efforts to get rid of his unwanted guest by persuading him that the loo is a “Jacuzzi” result in Roddy, rather than Sid, taking a literal ride on the porcelain express.
What he finds in the depths of the London sewer is a murine (that’s “murine” with an “m,” meaning “pertaining to rats and mice,” and yeah, I had to look it up) analogue to the city above, with such landmarks as Tower Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, and Big Ben rendered in rubbish and debris from the city itself. It’s akin to the undersea Times Square of Shark Tale, except that Shark Tale, while it obviously had real fish, lacked the fish-out-of-water dynamic that Roddy provides. Roddy’s onscreen reactions make the inventive environment an organic part of the comic goings‑on, rather than just a series of gags for the benefit of the audience.
Actually, in Flushed Away, everything is for the benefit of the characters as well as the audience — even music or other soundtrack effects that wouldn’t usually be part of the characters’ world. (This is technically known as “extra-diegetic” sound, except that here such sounds are humorously revealed to have a “diegetic,” or onscreen, rationale.)
This gag, recycled from The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, is typical of Aardman’s self-aware, genre-loving style of humor, which also embraces frequent jokey references to other films and the like. Kids will recognize throwaway homages to Lady and the Tramp and Finding Nemo, while grownups may blink at the sight of a cockroach reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis. And, of course, there are a couple of nods to Wallace and Gromit.
The plot, naturally, revolves largely around Roddy’s efforts to get home, though there’s also some complications involving a stolen jewel and, oh yes, a nefarious plot to destroy the city. Roddy teams up with Rita (Kate Winslet), sort of a seafaring Lara Croft, if Lara Croft were a sewer rat with a steamboat. Rita may be able to get Roddy home, though she’s on the bad side of the villainous Toad (Ian McKellen), a local crime boss whose pompous theatricality and aristocratic pretensions recalls the character of the same name in The Wind in the Willows, if Toad were a city-dwelling criminal kingpin.
After years of cheerfully sending up British stereotypes, Aardman gleefully takes a few pokes at other nationalities, from an overbearing American tourist to the troupe of sneering, surrender-prone French frogs, one of which works mime into their martial-arts routine. Best of all, though, are the sewer slugs, who nearly steal the show with their recurring Greek chorus routine (critic Peter Chattaway [Christianity Today Movies] rightly compares them to the singing mice in Babe, but more integral to the action).
For all that, Flushed Away settles for a more modest level than Aardman’s previous efforts. Strong on visual invention and wacky humor but light on story and characterization, it’s about on the level of a Blue Sky feature, in particular recalling Robots, with its bland hero arriving in a wackily inventive big city, teaming up with a smart, competent love interest, and eventually taking on the villain in a big action finale.
That’s still more than good enough to make it the best family film in theaters, and one of the better family films of the year. As with Pixar’s Cars, even a modest Aardman film is better than a lot of other studios’ better efforts.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.