Flushed Away (United Kingdom/United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In the past few years, CGI animated films have fallen into a depressing rut. The objective has become getting a product out the door rather than taking the time and effort to produce something memorable. The result has been a generic, formulaic market where every new movie looks like all the rest. Flushed Away is a breath of fresh air. Yes, it's about talking animals, but there are no attempts at making these two-legged approximations look like annoyingly cute versions of their real-world four-legged counterparts. The animation eschews detail in favor of something brighter and more cheerful. If the whole thing resembles Wallace and Gromit, it's no coincidence. Flushed Away is the first CGI feature from Aardman, the British animation company behind this year's Oscar winner.

For Flushed Away, Aardman has moved away from their stop-motion bread-and-butter. The reason: too many water scenes, and it's notoriously difficult to apply Aardman's usual approach to such sequences. The CGI has been designed to replicate the look and feel of clay animation, and the result is convincing. Flushed Away fits in with Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit, and reminds us how entertaining an animated movie can be when it's smart enough to make anyone over eight chuckle and smile.

Roddy (voice of Hugh Jackman) is a domesticated rat, born and bred as the pet of a little girl. When she and her family go away on a vacation, Roddy slips out of his gilded cage and gets the run of the house - for a little while, then Sid (Shane Richie) arrives. He's a sewer rat who has come up through the drains and wants the house all to himself so he can watch the World Cup finals. So, to get rid of Roddy, he does the most expedient thing: flushes him down the toilet. Roddy finds himself in a strange subterranean world filled with rats, toads, and frogs. He makes a deal with Rita (Kate Winslet), the owner of a boat. If she can get him home, he'll reward her with jewels. However, the pair runs afoul of Boss Toad (Ian McKellan), who sends his henchmen, Spike (Andy Serkis) and Whitey (Bill Nighy), and his cousin, Le Frog (Jena Reno), after them. Eventually, it becomes apparent that Roddy and Rita's journey isn't just a chase to escape the sewers but a quest to save the subterranean world from Toad's mad schemes.

Flushed Away contains plenty of the elements that make animated movies popular with children: animals, bright colors, bodily function gags, and video game-style action. Many recent animated films have stopped there, content to delight the under-10 crowd. Flushed Away's agenda is more ambitious. It contains comedy aimed at an older audience and adds shades of characterization that adults will appreciate more than their offspring. Almost everyone, however, will get the Finding Nemo reference ("Have you seen my dad?"), and it's innocuous enough that Disney shouldn't be annoyed.

The voice casting is genius: big names whose vocal work doesn't raise images of their real-life faces. Hugh Jackman's voice has an "everyman" quality. (Or should that be "every rat?") Kate Winslet's Rita is sassy, but doesn't sound like Titanic's Rose. One possible reason: Winslet has made so many movies with an American accent that it has become unusual to hear her speak without one. Ian McKellan pumps up his voice to ostentatious levels that recall neither Gandalf nor Magneto. The strategy is magnificent: use big names to pull in an audience and enhance credibility, but present their voices in a way that enhances the movie rather than creating a distraction.

Flushed Away's co-directors, David Bowers and Sam Fell, have worked hard to ensure that this movie stays true to the Aardman appeal, and they have succeeded. It's hard to imagine anyone who appreciated Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit not liking this movie. Sure, the visuals may not be as eye-popping as in more slickly animated movies, but that has always been part of Aardman's charm. There aren't wall-to-wall pop tunes, but the few that are used are well placed. (Any Tom Jones fans out there?) There's also a moral about the importance of friends and family over material possessions, although it's not hammered home with the inelegance one has come to expect from the genre.

It's a shame that Dreamworks is dumping this film into theaters in early November, sandwiched between the forgettable (and forgotten) Open Season and the presumed animated king of the holidays, Happy Feet. While it's true that Flushed Away isn't in the top echelon of CGI features occupied by Toy Story, Shrek, and The Incredibles, it's better than 90% of the animated fare of the last few years. It's refreshing not to have to qualify the movie's appeal by appending the words, "for the kids."

Flushed Away (United Kingdom/United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2006-11-03
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1