Friday, November 17, 2006

Flushed Away / *** (PG)

Roddy: Hugh Jackman
Rita: Kate Winslet
The Toad: Ian McKellen
Le Frog: Jean Reno
Whitey: Bill Nighy
Spike: Andy Serkis

DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Features present a film directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell. Written by Fell and Peter Lord and Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais and Chris Lloyd & Joe Keenan and Will Davies. Running time: 84 min. Rated PG (for crude humor and some language).

As a dad, you find yourself attending films you would never even consider watching on your own. I am a fan of animation and would attend more “family” fare than your average, non-parent filmgoer; but my five year-old picks some movies that would make most adults feel they had lost 90 minutes that they’ll never get back. Every once and a while, though, one of those unappealing children’s concepts turns out to be a real treasure.

When I first saw the previews of “Flushed Away”, I thought perhaps the minds at Aardman Animation had sold out to the Hollywood establishment in a misguided attempt to enter the mainstream animation business. The small British animation studio is famous for producing the award winning Claymation shorts and features “Creature Comforts” and the “Wallace & Gromit” adventures. “Flushed Away” marks the studio’s first foray in to the overly popular CGI animation format.

Although the animation is computer generated, it is done in a style that replicates right down to the character design the studio’s trademark Claymation style. At first, I couldn’t understand the point of making a CGI film look like a stop motion animation one. On top of that, it was a story about a pet rat that gets flushed into the London sewer system, not the most promising of set-ups.

I was wrong. “Flushed Away” is an ambitious, fun, rawkus adventure, filled with clever jokes, charming characters and a vitality that is informed by the stop motion style, yet probably took much less time and money to produce with computer technology.

Roddy (voiced by Hugh Jackman, “X-Men”) is a high society pet rat living the high life. When his family goes away, his affluent life is interrupted by an intruder rat named Sid (Shane Richie, BBC’s “French and Saunders”). Sid is a rat of a more vulgar nature who knows the difference between a toilet and a Jacuzzi; when Roddy tries to trick him into the toilet bowl, Sid turns the tables and flushes Roddy away.

Roddy discovers a new world in the sewers where rats and some less savory amphibians have built their own society which mirrors the London of above. Roddy finds himself in trouble early, mixed up in a confrontation between a boat captain named Rita (Kate Winslet, “Finding Neverland”) and the nefarious underlord The Toad (Ian McKellen, “The Da Vinci Code”). At first Roddy clashes with Rita and just wants to get back to his posh life, but he eventually joins forces with her to stop The Toad’s plans to flood the rats out of Sewer London.

Description doesn’t begin to hint at the joy with which all this is presented. Directors David Bowers and Sam Fell have assembled a team of animators that infuse their pixels with life and energy and a particular knack for bringing out even the minutest details in the forefront and background of each and every frame.

The stop motion technique is replicated right down to the ever so slight jump in action from one frame to the next and the cartoon retains that intangible spark of life that is so unique to stop motion. Every smile and smirk of the characters is felt by the audience as if it were a true physical occurrence rather than some computer virtual reality.

The filmmakers of both Aardman and DreamWorks retain their particular gifts for richly layered humor. The screaming and singing slugs never fail to inspire a guffaw and a knee slap. The filmmakers continue their studios’ and the format’s history of filling their story with a great number of referential jokes, spoofing a great many popular films from the James Bond and Indiana Jones franchises to “Star Wars”, and even very adult fare like “Apocalypse Now”.

The most impressive feat of this film, however, seems to be the vitality of the vocal performances. I can’t remember an animated film that so connected its vocal performances with a real sense of life in the characters. Jackman and Winslet are spry in their vocal treatment and Ian McKellen and Jean Reno (“The Da Vinci Code”), as an assassin known as Le Frog, ooze contempt for the other characters in every period, pause and syllable of their speech. You can just feel the how much fun it must have been for these actors to report to the sound studio each day.

And that’s appropriate because the point is this movie is a whole lot of fun. It has chases, rubies and a large family with comical characters that live on a perpetually rocking boat. It has maniacal plots and World Cup Soccer, fiendish doomsday devices and jocular villains, romance and witty, witty comedy. “Flushed Away” is simply a fantastic time at the movies.

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