Flushed Away

Flushed Away, the 3-D animated feature from Aardman Features and Dreamworks, ended up doing decent box office business in the US (and pretty good business worldwide.) Unfortunately, it didn’t come anywhere close to expectations or the numbers pulled-in by inferior family movies like Ice Age: The Meltdown, Eight Below, or The Santa Clause 3. It is viewed, despite generally positive reviews, as a failure, the breaking point for the Aardman and Dreamworks partnership. That’s really a shame, this is a very good film and more people should discover that on DVD. Aardman Features shorts and movies are known for two characteristics, quirky British humor and claymation. The two seem to work together very well, as if the slower, pokey visual style enhances the dry wit. For their latest feature, Flushed Away, the studio used 3-D animation rather than claymation but retained the humor that fans of Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit series will recognize. The 3-D style allows for a more frenetic and fluid pace, but, as with all good family films, the script and the characters are what make this movie a winner.

The plot couldn’t be simpler, Roddy (voiced by Hugh Jackman) is a London house-pet rat, living a life of freedom and luxury, but without any actual friends (his idea of a good time is to grab his owner’s dolls and play a little volleyball.) Due to a plumbing problem while his owners are away, a sewer rat, Sid (Shane Richie), takes over his home and flushes Roddy down the toilet. In the sewer, Roddy discovers a pseudo-London and enlists Rita (Kate Winslet) to take him back to the surface. Rita has her own problems avoiding the henchmen of the evil Toad (Ian McKellen) who needs a cord Rita took in order to carry out his nefarious scheme.

The story moves along with Roddy and Rita going through the standard hate-em/love-em relationship of the opposites attract school while sidestepping the hilarious Spike (Andy Serkis) and Whitey (Bill Nighy), two comic-relief toughguys. Eventually Toad enlists his French cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno) to go after the duo, so we get some great French stereotyping (“I laugh at everyone’s pain but my own….I’m French!”) All of this is wrapped in a delightful visual treat in the sewer-town. The production designers haven’t just built bridges, boats, and buildings, but built them out of pieces that would have been flushed down the loo and ended up in the sewer.

Because of the advantages of 3-D animation, the number of chase and action sequences is much higher than is typically seen in an Aardman feature. Fortunately, they are done with the same wit and attention to detail that infects the entire project. The movie never lags, which is the curse of many family-films, as though the viewer were too stupid to get the moral unless it is belabored over in lengthy pace-killing scenes.

The original trailers made this movie seem like something it was not. The focus was on potty humor, belching, and the more slimey aspects of the sewer. There are brief detours into those areas, but they amount to less than 3 minutes of screen time, quick jokes rather than long-term focus. The real focus is a nice relationship between Roddy and Rita and the humor of their pursuers. Also, some very funny slugs who act as a greek chorus to the events. Thankfully missing is the cute sidekick that is required in any Disney movie.

Because there are only three Best Animated Feature nominees for 2006, I don’t think it was such a crime that Flushed Away wasn’t nominated. But really, it deserves more respect than it has received. It really is everything an animated family movie should be, funny, exciting, sometimes eye-popping, and with a nice moral that isn’t overly explained. You really can’t ask for much more than that. Considering the high quality of the film itself, and the demonstrated creativity of its producing partners (Dreamworks and Aardman), the DVD itself is a bit of a disappointment. Although there are a nice selection of extras advertised, many of them are either insubstantial or not particularly entertaining. The commentary track features co-directors Sam Fell and David Bowers. Both try their best, but they are a bit dull and take on the commentary track like fans of the movie rather the producers of the content. “That’s a funny bit, isn’t it” is one line often repeated by one or the other. The one piece of interesting information they let out is the amount of outside influence (presumably from Dreamworks) they had in determining the content of the film. They continually mention test screenings and an ill-defined “they” that had input on lots of jokes and scenes.

One highly touted extra is “2 Animated Slug Songs.” For those who have seen the movie, the slugs are one of the comic highlights, either screaming at the sight of Roddy, or adding vocal ambiance to various scenes. But their inclusion here is a cheap trick. The 2 songs last about 15 seconds each and don’t provide a tenth of the humor the slugs appearance in the movie creates. There is also a section on how to build a slug out of modeling clay by one of the Aardman animators. It’s pretty straightforward, but unless you have a lot of modeling clay handy, it’s not much use.

Behind-the-scenes featurettes are limited to one on the voice cast and one on the music. They are rather standard, although you do get to see and hear from all the main actors, which is always nice. Be aware that some advertising indicates more extras than existed on the copy that I had, including more behind-the-scenes segments. Check your box carefully to make sure you are getting everything you expect.

The rest of the extras may have some appeal to small kids, but little to anyone else. They include musical "jukeboxes" that will play the music montage scenes from the movie and also a separate one that will play selected music sequences from other Dreamworks animated films, like Shrek, Shrek 2, and Madagascar. There is a unintentionally funny "Learn to Draw Roddy" segment. Basically they start with blank piece of paper and a voice says "draw his head"....."now add his eyes"....."now add his mouth." There isn't any guidance other than seeing a professional animator draw his face while you are supposed to follow along through osmosis. Finally, there are a bunch of games that you access through your computer.

More substantive making-of featurettes would have helped this release. The movie is pretty terrific and it's a nice transfer, so it wouldn't be hard to make it a top-notch addition to a family or animation fan library. It still is a good choice, but a little bit more effort on the disc would have made it a can't miss.