Droll and unfortunately titled, Flushed Away marks a point of no return for British animated films. This would be its Americanization, for the film is a celebrity-voiced, CGIed animal concoction, replete with pop cultural references and double entendres galore for the adults.
Maintaining a certain artistic integrity, past efforts in British animation have been a fairly reliable export, with filmmakers electing quality over quantity, evident in casting choices and use of labor-intensive claymation. But when Aardman Animation, the people behind Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run, opted for CGI designed to look like claymation (even down to the thumbprints), at the cost of the studio’s famous charm.
This is not to say that Flushed Away is a poor film. It’s just that the bigger, faster production mirrors American animated filmmaking, the sort that produced Shark Tale and the almost unwatchable Barnyard. Hasn’t this slope proved too slippery already? Here, Aardman loyalists have a right to be leery, as Flushed Away reads very much like a British A Bug’s Life, with rats.
Loosely and openly based on every James Bond movie ever, Flushed Away gives us Roddy St. James (Hugh Jackman), a pet rat with a golden cage, all the food he can eat, and owners gone on vacation. So he’s home alone, living it up in the posh Kensington borough of London, the whole flat to himself. His high life lasts only through the credits, however. Faster than you can say “Karl Marx,” a blue-collar rat, Sid (Shane Richie), crashes Roddy’s fun (just as he’s pretending to be 007) and flushes him straight down the toilet to his new digs: the sewer.
Dressed in a tuxedo, Roddy finds himself exposed to a whole “Ratropolis” that he never knew existed, all class struggles, starving families, and neon lights. However, rather than refining its “social commentary,” the film goes for jabs at all things British: Bond, The Royal Family, even (yawn) the Spice Girls. While the jokes are funny, they use London “culture” much like Shrek 2 used Hollywood: the targets are obvious and the characters stereotypical. Yes, we know that Prince Charles has big ears and the French can be snooty, but these are points that will leave parents wondering if this is really the best we can do to make our kids laugh.
Flushed Away occasionally abandons these familiar tactics for the more Looney Tunes-style physical stuff, with lots of things dropping on heads, multiple blows to groins, and certain death circumstances, as when the plucky heroine Rita (Kate Winslet) says, without any irony at all, “If they catch me, they‘ll kill me.” This particular twist proves refreshing and somehow nostalgic, as animated characters should be allowed to be in mortal danger, but instead, these days, so often find themselves in banal fish-out-of-water predicaments that bring out their inner Woody Allen more than their inner Wiley Coyote (see: Madagascar, The Wild or Open Season).
The highlights of the film emerge in its Bond themes, especially Ian McKellan’s voice work as The Toad, a villain as wonderfully derivative as Dr. Evil. Roddy, like Bond, gets the hot girl, escapes ninjas, and elaborate death traps just in time to save Ratroloplis from mass destruction, but ultimately the film‘s self-awareness compromises its homage, with arcane references to Lord of the Rings, Caddyshack, and even I Know What You Did Last Summer littered throughout.
Fans of Aardman’s work know that one of the joys of Wallace & Grommit — and Looney Tunes for that matter — is that they never labored to “work” on two levels like their U.S. counterparts. Grownups can be entertained by a children’s film that doesn’t star an A-lister’s voice or sound like a snarky VH-1 pop culture countdown show. Sadly, this long-held reistance to current convention appears to be slipping away now.