Aardman Saves the Clay In Brilliant 'Flushed Away'

The clay-animation studio's computer-generated rodents have a handmade charm.
The clay-animation studio's computer-generated rodents have a handmade charm. (Dreamworks Animation)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006

The thumbprints may be invisible, but they're still there in spirit.

Of the myriad joys to be had watching a film made by the clay-animation geniuses at Aardman Animations, one of the most satisfying is seeing the physical evidence of art that, in an era of virtual this and computer-generated that, is still adamantly handmade. Using plasticine, assorted bits and bobs from the junk drawer and unfettered imagination, the writers and animators at Aardman have succeeded in enchanting kids and their parents alike.

They've perfected the elusive art of combining memorable characters (Wallace and Gromit, a dotty British inventor and his trusty and far smarter dog, in "Curse of the Were-Rabbit"; Rocky and Ginger, the leading rooster and hen, respectively, of "Chicken Run") with fast-moving, subtly cheeky stories, resulting in family entertainments made all the more appealing by their primitive production values.

So Aardman fans may approach "Flushed Away," the creative team's first foray into computer animation, with some trepidation. Is the title all too prescient? Has Aardman abandoned its low-tech principles? Fear not: This critic and thumbprint purist is happy to report that the Aardman charm is still intact, and indeed enhanced by the new possibilities offered by state-of-the-art circuitry. (Another first is "Flushed Away's" PG rating, which should not deter parents from taking young children to a film that delighted children as young as 5 at a recent screening.)

The difference can be seen in "Flushed Away's" opening scene, where we meet a pet mouse named Roddy (voiced by Hugh Jackman) living in a spanking-clean white apartment in the posh London neighborhood of Kensington. Roddy's cage is an elegantly wrought Victorian number and sits amid a vast expanse of pristine chicness, a tundra of deep-pile carpet and flawlessly designed furniture that would cost a fortune and take a century to portray in old Aardman style.

But the benefits of 21st-century technology really come to the fore after Roddy meets an interloper named Sid (Shane Richie), a grungy gutter rat who is unexpectedly burped up into the kitchen sink one day while Roddy's human family is on vacation. Push comes to shove, the latter being to Roddy as Sid unceremoniously sends him spinning down the loo. When the pampered Roddy finally bobs up in a sewer, he discovers an entire miniaturized London down there, its streets replaced by Venice-like canals (and about as sweet-smelling).

As in so many classic cartoons, the point of "Flushed Away" is for our hero to get home. To help him in his suitably archetypal journey, the sweet-natured if slightly soft Roddy enlists the help of Rita (Kate Winslet), a plucky boat captain who while aiding Roddy must also do battle with a villain named the Toad (Ian McKellen, doing his best Sydney Greenstreet impersonation).

After some initial misunderstandings (did we note that Roddy is a bit soft?) and more than a few encounters with Toad's hapless henchmen (Andy Serkis and Bill Nighy) as well as his super-evil French cousin, Le Frog (Jean Reno), Roddy and Rita make their way through the viscous seas of the sewer, not only getting home but saving the whole rodent-infested city.

The synopsis of "Flushed Away" barely does justice to a movie that delivers a good story and spellbinding action to kids and a nearly nonstop barrage of laughs for their adult companions. In addition to the sly humor to be found in the background of every Aardman production (labels for Costly Crackers and Stumbler's Whiskey, a wall papered with news stories about the "Veggy Monster" from "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit"), "Flushed Away" features a hilarious running gag in the form of a Greek chorus of singing slugs, who harmonize at opportune moments on everything from "Don't Worry, Be Happy" to "Mr. Lonely."

Even though they've been drafted on a computer, those spineless blobs bear all the physical simplicity and facial expressiveness of Aardman's best-loved clay characters, and even at the height of their derring-do, Roddy and Rita move like they're in a movie from another, less slick era. But it's the derring-do where the computer really comes in handy: "Flushed Away" is by far the most ambitious Aardman feature when it comes to set pieces, a high-speed chase (with Toad's helpers on electric mixers) and a tidal wave created by the Big Flush during halftime of the World Cup soccer final.

Whether it's the understated elegance of Roddy's Kensington digs, the cheerful squalor of Rita's family home or Toad's beloved collection of royal-family kitsch, the world of "Flushed Away" is consistently alive with color, texture, humor and feeling. It's what we've come to expect from Aardman and, happily, it's what we've gotten from them once again. Cheers, mates, and well done.

Flushed Away (86 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for crude humor and some profanity.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company