Count on this: There'll always be an England... and an Aardman
There's something about the Brits and their toilets. That's an obsession at the heart of "Flushed Away," a new animated film from the folks at Britain's Aardman Studios, the folks who gave us "Chicken Run" and "Wallace & Gromit."
"We do like a good loo joke, don't we?" notes "Flushed" co-director David Bowers.
"I was actually afraid of them as a small child," adds co-director Sam Fell.
And then there were the rats.
"Rats and toilets, they sort of go together, eh?" Fell says.
So "Flushed" started life as a trip down the toilet. In the movie, a pampered, lonely house-pet rat (voiced by Hugh Jackman) loses his digs to an interloper, who flushes him into a secret parallel London of imitation double-decker buses, shops, pubs and boats, all whipped up from everyday household items by inventive rats and frogs living down there.
"The real fun is filling this rat world with all these familiar objects," Fell says. "An egg whisk can become a waterbike, a passport can become, well, you'll have to look for that."
"We didn't want to make it too slick," Bowers says. "That's part of Aardman's charm."
It is. The studio - famed for its hand-modeled Plasticine figures, moved in tiny increments, and photographed, animated, stop-motion style - was setting a movie in a watery world of pipes and sweating walls and green, green sewage.
That is why this Aardman film, done for "Shrek" studio DreamWorks, looks a bit more like "Shrek" than anything they've done before. Blame it on the water, but Aardman isn't quite as hand-made as it once was.
"We wanted to do it all hand-crafted, with Plasticine," Fell says. "Building this elaborate set, all of it. But it would've taken years and cost a fortune, all that water, for instance. And it wouldn't have looked right.
"All that water," Bowers says. "Couldn't get it to look right. We had our hearts set on making this a complete world, detailed. It simply wouldn't have been possible to do with the traditional way."
So they modeled the characters by hand, and digitized them, computer-animating the film's extensive action (lengthy chases, through green water). But aside from that, it's vintage Aardman, the directors insist.
"Comedy is comedy," Bowers says. "And all the Aardman films, from the very beginning, have these references and jokes about earlier movies. That's all `Chicken Run' was, really."
"What do we have here?" Fell asks. "James Bond, `Risky Business,' Laurel and Hardy, Lara Croft. The chase, the sorts of jokes, they're universal, really."
That universality has been a reason for Aardman's success. After hitting it big with "Chicken Run," the studio had no trouble landing the voice talent it wanted here, from Jackman and Kate Winslet to Sir Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, Bill Nighy and the one-and-only "Gollum," Andy Serkis, who plays a rat thug.
"Oh, they're very British, in that way they love tinkering, all this hand-crafted looking and quirky," Serkis says. "And they give you the luxury of working with some of the voice actors you're appearing with. I did scenes with Bill Nighy (who plays a rat enforcer, named Whitey) in the booth, together, so that we could work out that whole Laurel and Hardy thing we did. It was funnier, and they went to the trouble to make it happen."
Bowers and Fell say that there will "always be an Aardman," even if the studio has to adjust what it does to battle rising costs and rising ambition.
"I don't think the old ways, stop-motion animation, will go away," says Bowers. "But with so much water and so much depth to this world, so many characters, so much action, we really did need to go CG. All of Aardman's previous films showed smaller worlds, rural settings, really. This one is a city, a whole world, really. I can see simpler films with fewer characters and no water being stop-motion."