Last Fall there was the double whammy of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, two stop-motion animation features in a bloated forest of computer-animated cartoons. Even the latest tailer for The Simpson’s Movie riffed on that fact…before showing a scene of Homer driving a CG wrecking ball. But Britain-based Aardman has been a shining light of traditional animation values in the blinding glare from off the computer screen, which is sort of why it was kind of a disappointment when they decided to make their latest film, Flushed Away, inside the box.
Hugh Jackman is the voice of Roddy St. James, a pampered pet mouse living the high life in London’s Kensington Place. While Roddy’s family is away, an irritant in the form of a sewer rat named Sid (Shane Richie) suddenly appears out of the drain in the kitchen sink. Despite Roddy’s best efforts to flush Sid down the toilet by pretending it’s a Jacuzzi, Sid despite his boorishness and ill-manners wasn’t born yesterday. Instead, Roddy gets flushed down into the sewers where he quickly runs afoul of a tug boat skipper named Rita (Kate Winslet) and gets caught in her battle of wills with crime boss The Toad (Ian McKellen) and his dim hired goons Whitey (Bill Nighy) and Spike (Andy Serkis).
The difference between Flushed Away and other Aardman titles is that this is the studio’s first foray into CG animation. Now, this is because of the technical fact that water is very difficult to do with stop-motion animation, and I can certainly appreciate that, but it feels like some of the charm has been lost nonetheless. They do keep the same stylistic look for the characters, and you can sometimes con yourself into thinking that you’re watching the same old Aardman show, but it just feels different. A lot of the typical Dreamworks Animation touches like popular music, insider references, and salty humour are sneaked into the mix, so Flushed Away feels more like a hybrid of Chicken Run and Shrek styles.
On the bright side though, a lot of the Aardman charm is intact, and they find some good voice actors to bring their characters to life. Jackman is a great choice for Roddy, and he and Winslet play well off each other; Nighy and Serkis soak up a great many of the laughs as the incompetent henchmen. Jean Reno contributes a hilarious small role as a French operative called Le Frog, and McKellen hits all the right notes as the villain. The rat London in the sewer is brilliantly realized, and there are lots of Pixar-style Easter eggs for the careful observer, for example Roddy’s Wolverine costume or the stuffed Gromit that can be seen in the little girl’s room.
Despite flaws, Flushed Away stands up rather well even though I was laughing more than the kids in the theatre—with the exception of any scenes where someone gets hit in the groin. In any case, this is solid family entertainment and proof that you can take the clay out of the movie, but you can never remove its spirit.