Flush with the success of their last outing (sorry, had to get that out of my system early), the fine folks at England’s Aardman Animations have decided to follow up the international hit Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Wererabbit with a rather surprising technological upgrade. Having mastered the art of clay animation, Aardman now tries its hand at tinkering with computer-generated toons. Although the 2006 box office has been inundated with CG animals, Flushed Away is easily one of the sharpest and deserves a rosier fate than the one that befell Ant Bully, Barnyard, Open Season and others.
The switch from clay to computers serves a greater purpose here than mere high-tech trendiness. The film’s storyline--about a pampered pet rat who ends up in the sewers of London--necessitated a serious amount of water. That element, it seems, is a tad difficult to render in Plasticine (the U.K. term for modeling clay). Hence, Aardman’s animators took a crash course in 3-D computer modeling. Thankfully, those fine blokes figured out a way to keep their trademark Aardman style intact, right down to the lumpy brows and beady glass eyes on the characters. Squint right, and you’ll never know the difference.
In fact, the new medium has allowed filmmakers to inject even more movement and action into the story. That works out nicely, as Flushed Away is a zippy action/adventure piece, far more attuned to short attention spans than the polite, genial wit of Wallace & Gromit.
Our tale begins in a plush London penthouse where rich rodent Roddy (Hugh Jackman) is living the high life. With his owners out of town on holiday, he’s left to his own devices, watching movies on the big-screen telly and having beach parties with the Barbie dolls. Despite the many amenities, Roddy is a lonely guy. That changes when seedy sewer rat Sid (Shane Richie) is shot up through the water pipes and decides to take up residence in anticipation of the upcoming World Cup.
In a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to rid himself of this dirty house crasher, Roddy ends up flushed down the loo. At pipe’s end, he finds an underground metropolis populated by rodents, amphibians and slugs. Unable to survive on his own on these mean streets, Roddy hooks up with a tough cookie boat captain named Rita (Kate Winslet). The two are quickly shoehorned into a misadventure involving a stolen ruby, an evil toad (Sir Ian McKellen) and a couple of murderous cheese-eating hitmen (Bill Nighy and Andy Serkis).
The helter-skelter plot is all rather irrelevant, eventually morphing into a murderous scheme to destroy the sewer city involving several McGuffin objects and a lot of chase scenes. The script borrows elements from The African Queen, To Have and Have Not and assorted James Bond films. There are moments when it all threatens to run of the rails, but the chaotic film holds together thanks to its colorful characters and impressive voicecast. Everyone on board sounds like they’re having fun, with upper-crust Jackman providing one of his most animated (so to speak) performances and tomboy Winslet giving some good verbal tit-for-tat.
It is the background details, however, that give the film its memorable punch. The “underground London” sets (if you can call them that) are imaginative jumbles of cast-off human garbage that have been cobbled together to form buildings, boats and other items for rodent use. A team of killer French frogs (get it?) are good for some laughs. And the film manages to squeeze out a few setting-appropriate poop jokes. ... But it is the slugs that virtually steal the show. Honestly. Like the penguins in Madagascar, these bit players pull the film’s biggest laughs. After all, who doesn’t love singing slugs?
Though it represents a slight change in direction for Aardman, you couldn’t really say Flushed Away constitutes any major evolution in feature film animation. Pixar got to the CGI well first and still does it best. Nonetheless, Aardman has created an entertaining, no-age-limit world in which rats can pilot boats, frogs can do kung fu and slugs can harmonize a mean a capella. (Seriously, give these invertebrates their own movie already.)