Bowl Movement
By Noel Vera

Flushed Away
Dir: David Bowers, Sam Fell (2006)

David Bowers and Sam Fell's "Flushed Away" (2006) is surprisingly charming, an unholy marriage between Aardman Animations (responsible for Nick Park's "Wallace and Gromit" movies) and Dreamworks that actually manages to stay afloat, despite the tidal pull of American digital animation and all its dreary clichés.

It's hard to say why--there's plenty the matter with the picture. You miss the handmade quality of Park's films (yes, he's started using CGI, but only to supplement the stop-motion animation), the vast tabletop models (the aerial shots of the estate with the carnival rides spinning about in "Curse of the Were-Rabbit" were so intricately detailed you wanted to stop and stare), the (most of all) expressive plasticine forehead of Gromit (he's to silent dog comedy what Chaplin was to silent film comedy--a sweet yet somehow melancholy champion).

You don't miss the tired storylines, the action sequences that ape amusement park rides or the latest extreme sports that seem standard-issue in most animated American films nowadays--all that swinging from vines (in this case, electric cords and pipes running liquid nitrogen (but what are liquid nitrogen pipes doing in a sewer?)), the motorboats chased by hand mixers, the parachuting and hang-gliding and water-skiing and whatnot (when Parks did chases, they weren't mere coaster rides, but structural frames on which to hang all kinds of sight gags).

Strangely, the baggage that does comes with the digital animation is not as annoying as usual--maybe it helps that longtime Parks collaborator Peter Lord both produced and cooked up the script, with the help of Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais (both veterans who have written for Tracy Ullman and Lenny Henry), with additional material by Tim Sullivan (who has adopted both E. M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh to the big screen).

Fairly overqualified talent to bring together and focus on what is essentially a mouse-out-of-water story: Roddy St. James (Hugh Jackman) is the lonely spoiled dandy of a pet rat (from Kensington, yet!) who gets flushed down the toilet by a rude intruder rat named Sid (Shane Richie); underground, he encounters a subterranean version of London, complete with a carton-box Big Ben and a broad sewer canal representing the river Thames (again, those wondrous tabletop models--a shade less wondrous, being digital constructs). He meets Kate Winslet (granted she's been afflicted with the less-than-attractive car-grille smile Aardman glues on all its characters, and denied the bountiful upholstery she carries around with her in real life, but still·) playing Rita, a spunky (but what else could she be?) female rat out to smuggle the Queen's ruby to her impoverished, physically handicapped father (David Suchet).

Standing in their way is the villainous Toad (Ian McKellen, more fun here than when wrapped in leather as Magneto, much more entertaining than he was or could ever be in Ron Howard's soggy "The Da Vinci Code"), his pair of slightly out-of-it henchmen Spike (Andrew Serkis, apparently still suffering withdrawal pains from losing The One Ring) and Whitey (the wonderful Bill Nighy, playing the rodent equivalent of a twenty-five watt bulb screwed into a fifty-watt lamp), and as the smooth and suave Le Frog, the (who else?) smooth, suave Jean Reno.

It's not just your usual multiplex kiddie fare, stuffed full of pop cultural references (although there's plenty of those here (allusions to "Finding Nemo," James Bond, Superman, Spiderman, and previous Aardman films abound)), non-sequiturs, fart jokes, enough sentimentality to send your blood sugar index soaring; this is a seriously silly movie, where the actors mostly have a light touch with jokes and you can catch glimpses of wit--or at the very least evidence of an odd sense of humor. You'd be hard put to find a movie, for example, where someone will inform you point-blank that the stomach ache you're both suffering is "the curry you had last night," adding confidentially: "I've got a bum like a Japanese flag."

When Rita takes Roddy home it's to a disarmingly ramshackle house, precariously balanced (a reference to Chaplin's "The Gold Rush"?) and inhabited by about a hundred brothers and sisters, a cockroach boarder reading a French translation of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" (think about it), and a grandmother convinced that Roddy's really Tom Jones, here for a visit. It's difficult to maintain an air of snooty condescension towards a picture where people are so eager to laugh at their own Britishness: discussing both the imminent World Cup halftime and upcoming end of their underground London (inextricably linked, thanks to an evil plan by the Toad), Rita (on their chances of saving the day) declares: "It's impossible!" Roddy responds: "England's winning--anything's possible."

Then there's the slugs. Whole choruses of them, shrieking in the dark, sliding down slippery tunnels, peering into this or that shadowy corner, singing everything from Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy, to Bobby Vinton's "Mr. Lonely"--excellent voices, at that--and flitting around in a cocktail drink umbrella. It's almost enough to make you want to adopt them as pets--almost.

As is, "Flushed Away" is inventive enough and eccentric enough to distinguish itself against the rest of competition--against, say, Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick's "Over the Hedge" with their vision of row after row of gleaming suburban garbage cans, just begging to be raided; or John Lasseter's "Cars" with its parallel universe inhabited by automobiles, and its trademark blend of syrupy sentiment and storytelling savvy. It doesn't have the grandeur and ambition of George Miller's "Happy Feet"--penguins, yes, but with a serious messiah complex--and it's so far below the level on which Studio Ghibli is operating ("Howl's Moving Castle," the yet unreleased Earthsea film) the joke's not very funny. But it's passable, a recognizably Aardman product; here's to hoping they'll get back to Parks, and to using plasticine.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 03/02/07.
Comments? Email me at

For more... email with the message, "Put me on your mailing list."

March 16, 2007