Since releasing Chicken Run in 2000, DreamWorks had had a partnership with Aardman Animation, the British studio best known for the Wallace & Gromit shorts. But the relationship wasn’t without its squabbles. During production of the Wallace & Gromit feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit, DreamWorks barraged them with notes, all seeming to revolve around making things less “English,” removing certain references and toning down accents, even going so far as considering getting a new voice actor for Wallace. Then we come to Flushed Away, a film that actually makes this list as it’s a co-production between the two studios. As the large amount of water effects would have been a nightmare to create using stop-motion, the film is fully CG, but using the traditional Aardman-style designs. The companies’ creative differences, as well as the lower end box office take for this and Gromit, the two ended up parting ways. Considering the absolute greatness of Aardman’s past and future films, it was kind of a bonehead move on Dreamworks’ part.
The film follows prim and proper pet rat Roddy, living in a lavish house in Kensington all by his lonesome. Then from nowhere comes the boorish, slovenly Sid, who intends to makes Roddy’s house his own. Roddy attempts to dispose of him by posing the toilet as a whirlpool bath, but Sid, being smarter than he gave him credit for, pushes him in instead and flushes him away, thus giving us meaning to the film’s title. Roddy is now thrust into the underground community in the sewers, trying to find a way to get home. He finds it in Rita, a scrappy rat with a stolen ruby intending to use it to support her enormous rat family. Discovering the ruby to be a fake, Roddy makes her a deal, that if she gets him back to the surface, he can get her the genuine article from his human’s jewelry box. On their tail(s) is the deranged toad known as… Le Toad, also from the surface world, who completely despises living amongst filthy rats, who has a plan to wipe them out once and for all.
First off the 3D mimicking of Aardman’s style looks fantastic. The animation is a bit more reserved and stuttery as if it were stop motion, and instead of using interpolation, the mouths are all swapped off as if it were being done physically. Some models even have scratches and smudges on them as if they were actual plasticine. Stuff like that kept me perpetually visually arrested, the film looks frigging great. Story wise it’s fairly simplistic, but not entirely to its detriment. Aardman’s films usually are some kind of subversion of other film types, like Chicken Run was a prison break and Were-rabbit spoofed old horror movies. This movie is kind of your more standard fare, a kind of fish-out-of-water adventure of Roddy trying to get home while an evil scheme is a-brewin’. The story beats are all familiar and predictable, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. It’s the set dressing and trimmings that make it unique, with the class warfare between the surface and the sewer, and the big climax taking place due to everyone holding in their pee for halftime during the World Cup.
The cast here is pretty stellar, all big names of course, but excellent in their roles. Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet lead and work quite nicely together. Jackman has the right mix of natural charm with bumbling naivety that comes from him being a pampered, isolated pet, while Winslet takes the no-nonsense, street-smart tough girl role and gives it dimension with Rita tending to her family and being genuinely charming and captivating throughout the film. Ian McKellen plays Le Toad over-theatrically and bombastic, a fantastic hammy villain who is truly a maniac, which goes into wonderfully disturbing territory when we see his true plan for the sewer to be overrun by his tadpole offspring. True highlights are Andy Serkis and Bill Nighy as Spike and Whitey, Toad’s two lackey rats, the former edgy and wirey, and the latter a big lovable dullard, who’s got some of the film’s best one liners (“That’ll be last night’s curry, Spike. I’ve got a bum like a Japanese flag.”) Between our main cast and the highly enjoyable incidentals (the rambunctious Sid is hilarious for the few scenes he’s in), I really liked spending a movie with these guys.
There’s also a lot of humor, which sort of feels like a hybrid of DreamWorks and Aardman’s styles. There’s a fair amount of slapstick, but also lots of verbal humor and cultural references, both regional and across the pond, but they seem to work. A particularly great moment is when Roddy is first flushed and encounters a goldfish who asks, “Have you seen my dad?” Five minutes later we see him lying face up on a hibachi. Of course we find out soon after he’s still alive, but the initial shock of it is a great bit. One running gag that does wear out its welcome are the singing slugs though, which allegedly was DreamWorks’ pushing. The first time they show up it’s kind of cute, but then they keep coming back again and again and again and quickly become irritating.
There are very few points I can take issue with in this one; all in all, it’s pretty fantastic. Lovable characters, lots of humor, arresting style and a satisfying story and ending, it’s a wonderful animated romp. Between this and Arthur Christmas, Aardman shows its magic touch exists regardless of what medium. Though perhaps not so much in terms of box office take, which is why DreamWorks let them go in the first place. But whatever, at least we get some awesome films out of ’em. At least until the money runs out.
Also, sidebar, in the early 2000s, Aardman’s original pitch for the film centered around a gang of pirates, but DreamWorks turned it down, claiming that no one wants to see pirate movies anymore. Cut to few years later, Pirates of the Caribbean is a mammoth success, and you can imagine Aardman’s chagrin. Then cut to the present where they’re now partnered with Sony Pictures, and what movie releases this year? The Pirates! Band of Misfits. They finally got to make it. And it was quite good.