Pets don’t get more pampered than Roddy St. James (Hugh Jackman), a well-to-do mouse from London’s snooty Kensington. But all that changes with the arrival of a sewer rat named Sid (Shane Richie), who climbs up the kitchen drain. Desperate to rid himself of this revolting interloper, Roddy tries to trick Sid into taking a dip in the “jacuzzi” (aka the toilet) so that he can flush him back from whence he came. Instead Roddy himself gets flushed and ends up in the bustling underground world of Ratropolis. His only chance to get home is in the hands of the adventurous Rita (Kate Winslet). Unfortunately Rita has bigger things on her mind, like the evil Toad (Ian McKellen) and his henchrats, Spike (Andy Serkis) and Whitey (Bill Nighy), from whom she has stolen a valuable jewel.
Charm has always been one of the rarest commodities in mainstream entertainment. Like humour and sincerity it’s not something that can be forced or bought. Yet one company, Aardman Animations, has always made it look effortless. With quirky little films like Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit, Aardman have enchanted audiences around the globe, and never paid much heed to the war of the animation giants going on around them. But, by looks of their latest film - Flushed Away - all that seems to have changed.
Teaming up with Dreamworks (the makers of Skrek), Aardman have decided to ditch their normal methods – stop animation using clay figures – in favour of computer generated imagery. This may seem like an unimportant technical detail, but it changes the whole feel and pace of the animation. Aardman’s earlier films were all about the delightful details, striking character designs and the unmistakable craftsmanship of something made entirely by hand. Flushed Away is just another slick and soulless animated adventure, with little to distinguish it from the half a dozen similar films released in the last few months.
Not that Flushed Away isn’t generally enjoyable. It still has flashes of Aardman brilliance, particularly in the design of characters, and the kind of oddball details and visual puns that have always been so central to their charm. Who else but Aardman would have a cast of hilarious singing slugs, or an evil toad with a collection of tacky Buckingham Palace souvenirs? Who else would recreate London in miniature detail as Ratropolis, or create a boat entirely from discarded junk?
But, in this new medium, we hardly get a chance to appreciate these details before they whiz by. Instead of oddball visual puns and charming dialogue, the film relies on slapstick and chase scenes to sustain our interest. There’s nothing essentially wrong with this – one of the chase scenes is really quite marvellous, with our heroes pursued by villains riding electric beaters – it’s just that we’ve seen this sort of stuff so many times before.
A brilliant script or exceptional voice performances might have rescued the film, but neither of these live up to their promise. The talented writers have dreamed up a great concept and some witty dialogue, but nothing that really stands out from a dozen similar scripts. On paper the cast looks extremely impressive, packed to the gills with A-list stars, but few of them do much more than an average job. Sir Ian McKellen camps it up to great effect as Toad and Jean Reno is fun as Le Frog, but the rest of the voices just don’t find the spark needed to bring their characters to life. This is probably more to do with poor direction than the commitment of the actors, but the end result is the same.
As much as we might miss the unique charm of Aardman’s old technique, this change in technology is not the root of the problem, just a symptom of a far more significant shift. Aardman are essentially tired of being constrained by the physical limits of clay models and real sets. They want to be able to tell stories with more ambitious scope – stories like Flushed Away - because that is where the real money is.
The tragedy is that their limited scope was a vital part of what made Aardman’s movies so special. Anyone with money can make a big, flashy, computer generated film, and at least six other studios are doing just that. But no-one else was making eccentric little treasures like Wallace and Gromit and, now that they have joined the big budget rat race, it’s possible that no-one else ever will. Let’s just hope they come to their senses.
- Alistair Fairweather