Monday, 2 April 2007

Flushed Away (2006)

Flushed Away

I think I must be reading the wrong critics. According to the sleeve on the Flushed Away DVD, officially released in stores today, the film was "one of the year's best-reviewed films".

My recollection of the reviews published at the time of the film's theatrical release is that critics were generally unimpressed by Aardman's first foray into CGI work, with the broad concensus being that this was very much a 'me too' film with little to differentiate it from the veritable deluge of CGI movies we've seen over the last twelve months.

More recently the media seem to have leapt on the box-office faulure of this film as being the reason why the lucrative deal between Aardman and DreamWorks has just been terminated, presumably making it difficult for Aardman to finance and distribute similar big-budget efforts in the future. To me, this is very much a case of history being rewritten since the signs of potential problems were there long before the release of Flushed Away, when Aardman's Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit failed to deliver at the American box office, despite incredibly enthusiastic reviews and official oscar recognition.

Flushed Away controversially moves away from Aardman's traditional, world-reknowned plasticine animation process into the world of CGI, and as such was always going to be a rather high risk venture. Add in the fact that the film doesn't have familiar, well-known characters to pull people in, the way the Wallace and Gromit movie did, and it's fairly obvious that Flushed Away was always going to be a tougher sell. The relatively disappointing American box office should have been expected, even if some of the American reviewers had been far more fulsome in their praise of the film than they actually turned out to be.

Hugh Jackman voices pampered pet mouse Roddy St James

Unfortunately the finished film does occasionally feel like it has a split-personality. At times the CGI work looks like the best work we've come to expect from the Americans. At others it has the slightly clunkier feel of its plasticine counterparts. You can't help notice instances where only parts of a figure are moving, where your brain is telling your eyes that more should be happening since this ISN'T a plasticine production. We've come to expect more in terms of real life movement thanks to the likes of Cars which have moved things so far forwards in terms of what can be accomplished technically in the CGI world.

But that's a small criticism given the wit and overall inventiveness shown here. The opening scene alone is worth the price of admission, with the genre sending itself up something rotten, as Roddy the mouse rodent plays with static Toy Story-like pals, attempting to emulate real life in an empty Hampstead house. The humour may be somewhat slap-stick at times but there are constant reminders that perfectionists have been at work on the film, adding touches here and there that will only get noticed on a second or third viewing, and adding much-needed subtlety for those of us that prefer our humour to be a bit more intellectual.

I've enjoyed several CGI films this year, and I'll be reviewing a couple more good CGI movies recently released on DVD and HD-DVD over the next couple of days, but I can't say any of them have had me laughing out loud the way Flushed Away had me doing in more than just a couple of places.

Roddy's life changes dramatically when punk rat Sid, voiced by Shane Ritchie, invades his Hampstead flat

The core story about a posh rodent losing his home, meeting a rough girl with a huge family from the suburbs (or sewers) and battling an evil maniac intent on destroying the world may not be new, but the embellishments and the telling of the story are wonderfully inventive at times and, thankfully, wonderfully British.It's refreshing to see a big-budget film that doesn't pander overmuch to its Hollywood paymasters when it comes to delivering punchlines and in-jokes. One suspects that there is a lot here that won't have anything like the same comedy impact Stateside, but is that such a bad thing when we have so little cultural identity of our own?

Roddy the Rodent is voiced by Hugh Jackman, a real revelation in the role of the terribly British Roddy. He manages the difficult task of making Roddy both snobbish and patronising, whilst also vulnerable and loveable, switching from slapstick comedy one moment to bathos the next. And he can sing too. The man has far too much talent than is natural for any one person to posess. Kate Winslett proves all those acting awards are given her for a reason, playing Roddy's rough diamond love interest as a cross between Catherine Tate's 'Am I bovvered?' character and Angeline Jolie's action figure in the Tomb Raider series. The two leads are supported by wonderful performances from an all-star cast - a barely recognisable William Nighy and Andy Serkis as the two henchman to Ian McKellen's wonderfully over-the-top villain Mr Toad. And let's not forget Jean Reno who gamely plays along with the British-perceived stereotypical French character of Le Frog, admitting at one point 'It's because I'm French' in a way that one would have never expected from a country that at times seems to take itself way too seriously. It's great stuff!

The big villain of the piece is Prince Charles' former pet The Toad, voiced by Sir Ian McKellen

Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement are well known as the writers of sit-coms that were particularly successful in the last century, but it's hard to think of recent work of theirs that has impressed (Have you seen Goal!? - Enough said!) But Flushed Away does impress. Not with the basic plot which is an extremely familiar one, but with the way scenes have been invented around traditional story elements that have already been done to death, to give them a freshness and vitality that's all too rare in CGI films like this. Whether this is down to a 'spit and polish' from co-writers Sam Fell and Peter Lord is hard to say, but the important thing is that the story works on several levels - a basic morality tale for the kids, and a laughter roller-coaster ride for the adults. The film is a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it far more than I'd expected to.

The picture quality on this DVD transfer is superb, as one has come to expect from CGI work, and good use is made of surround sound too. Surprisingly I found the occasional use of standard pop tunes worked for me much better than the main film score, which the creators gush about endlessly on the extra's as having turned the movie into a 'real film', but which to me just sounds old-fashioned and like a million other 'me too' film scores. The gimmick of the singing slugs is somewhat over-used, but in general the pop tunes work because they add something to the plot, lifting the mood and also being lyrically relevant, which is unusual in this genre.

Kate Winslett polished off her Catherine Tate impression to play Roddy's love interest, Kate, a bit of a rough diamond, but with a heart of gold

The extra's include the usual 'kids games' and a bunch of gimmicks that promise more than they deliver. The Slug Singers present three songs, but these are merely short extracts (less than a minute) rather than complete songs. The heavily promoted Flushed Away Jukebox turns out to be simply a selection of 4:3 aspect ratio video extracts from other CGI films like Shrek, Shrek II and Over the Hedge with the unsubtle sales message 'Available on DVD' flashed at various strategic points.

Fortunately the adults haven't been entirely forgotten. There is a Making of which features the usual talking heads and shows the celebrity voice actors at work - this is very much a marketing fluff featurette, but fun to watch nevertheless. There is a commentary track from the two directors, but it feels like a wasted opportunity. The directors interrupt each other far too often, usually just at the point when it sounds like something interesting is going to be revealed. There's a lot of talk about scenes that were excluded or changed, but too often no reason is given to explain the omission or change of heart.

Flushed Away is a fun ride, and one that follows the conventions of Aardman's plasticine productions. Repeat viewings will reveal new comic gems frequently missed on an initial viewing, with so much happening in the backgrounds of scenes away from the main action. Although the film follows a rather hackneyed plot there are enough 'in' jokes and genuinely inventive moments to keep adults and kids equally amused. This one's recommended as a purchase!

The bustling underground hidden in our sewers

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