November 05, 2006

MOVIES: Flushed Away (David Bowers & Sam Fell, 2006)

It's been a good year for animation, and here's another entertaining movie to add to the list.

Roddy St. James (voiced by Hugh Jackman) is a pampered pet rat (or maybe he's a mouse; it's never quite made clear) who gets flushed down the toilet into the subterranean city of the sewers. There, he meets Rita (Kate Winslet) who reluctantly agrees to help him get back home. But before that can happen, the two get caught up in a duel with the evil Toad (Ian McKellen), his henchmen Spike and Whitey (Andy Serkis and Bill Nighy), and his mercenary cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno).

The movie is produced by Aardman Animations, the same folks who make the Wallace & Gromit movies, and the characters have that studio's trademark look -- lots of teeth and very expressive eyebrows. But the amount of water footage and the size of the sets made Aardman's usual stop-motion claymation technique impractical for Flushed Away, which is actually computer animation designed to look like claymation. It's still instantly recognizable as an Aardman project, but I did think that the computers give the movie a slightly more polished look than their usual clay work, and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

The story's lively and funny enough to keep the kids entertained, and the grownup jokes are smoothly mixed into the story. The action scenes are entertaining, though never especially surprising. The voice performances are solid, with particuarly good work from McKellen, hamming shamelessly and growling his lines in the lowest register of his voice. Reno's Le Toad is also very funny ("I laugh at everyone's pain," he says, "I am French.").

The scene stealers, though, are the Greek chorus of slugs who pop up periodically to offer musical commentary on what's going on; they are to this movie what Scrat is to the Ice Age series -- a guarantee of a laugh. (They are much better integrated into the story than Scrat is, though, and Flushed Away is better than the Ice Age movies.)

This isn't quite up to the year's best animated movies -- Monster House or Over the Hedge -- but I'd take it over Cars or Open Season. Certainly worth seeing in the theater if you're into animation or have kids who need to be entertained; even if you're not, it'll be worth a DVD rental.

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