In 2006, DreamWorks released Flushed Away, their their third and final co-production with the British film studio Aardman. If you’ve been following our DreamWorks Animation Countdown series, then you’ve probably seen my last two reviews of the films that DreamWorks made in collaboration with Aardman, and you’ll know I am a huge Aardman fan. I love their dry sense of humor, their wordplay, the very Britishness that they infuse into just about everything they do. Unfortunately Flushed Away does not feel much like any of that at all.
The movie opens with scenes establishing our main character, Roddy, voiced by Hugh Jackman, as a pet rat who lives in luxury, but is lonely. To the point that he plays with a large variety of dolls and action figures, pretending them to be his friends. One day when his family leaves on vacation, their home is infiltrated by a sewer rat, who makes himself at home, and flushes Roddy down the toilet, depositing him in a huge city populated by rats and slugs.
Roddy quickly finds himself mixed up with a beautiful scavenger rat named Rita, voiced by Kate Winslet, who is running from the mob. Rita has apparently stolen a ruby from the mob’s leader, a giant toad, voiced by Ian McKellen, with plans to take over the sewers and exterminate all the rats. To that end he has planned to flood the sewers during halftime at the World Cup, and release a massive army of little tadpoles, apparently his children, who are just waiting in little jars to take over when the rats are gone.
Hijinks ensue, and Roddy and Rita who hate each other, but eventually fall in love, decide to work together to defeat the evil toad and all his minions, including an army of French frogs, complete with a mime. The toad’s plot is foiled, the town is saved, and Roddy decides to live in the sewers with Rita.
Even the best studios can’t make a perfect film every time, and that includes Aardman. Sometimes, for whatever reason, they’ll just fall short of the mark, and in this case, I think I have a pretty good idea what that reason is.
Flushed Away reeks (no pun intended) of executive meddling. Somewhere in this movie is a charming, creative, witty movie, with lot of jokes, lovable characters, and a great story. Unfortunately, most of that has been buried or removed, by what I can only assume is DreamWorks executives trying to appeal to an American audience, or kids, or whoever liked Shark Tale and Over the Hedge.
And part of that meddling seems to also include the medium of animation that they used. Aardman is known for its amazing use of stop-motion. They are one of only a small handful of studios that still do stop-motion on a consistent basis, and they do it well. In Flushed Away, they replaced all that with standard CGI. They did start with placticine, they sculpted the characters before scanning them into the computer, but after that, the computer took over, and the results are a little mixed.
Some scenes in Flushed Away are great, just about everything with the toad seems to have somehow captured the stop motion feel almost perfectly. There are character moments here and there that are very well done, but for the most part everything is very obviously CGI, and very obviously mid-2000’s CGI at that. Most everything is a bit too glossy, the movements are a bit too stiff, and nothing looks quite as ‘real’ as other Aardman features’ maquettes look.
In most Aardman films, you can clearly tell that their characters are clay or placticine. They are slightly imperfect, they have a sculpted texture, sometimes you can even see fingerprints left in the models. All of that gives the characters life and personality. Here, just about everything looks kind of cold and plastic, surfaces look vaguely clay-like, but there are no fingerprints to be found anywhere, and most things have the same shiny, matte texture.
The official reason given for the switch to CGI was that it would be too hard and expensive to create the amount of water needed for the film. It also would apparently have been cost prohibitive to create CGI water to insert into stop-motion animated scenes. I suppose these could be valid points, there is a lot of water in the film, and I can totally see the difficulty in thoroughly realizing that in a stop-motion world.
But at the same time, I can’t help but think that a high-level DreamWorks executive was pushing for Aardman to make the switch completely to CGI. It is a lot quicker than stop-motion, and with the success that Pixar was having with their CGI films, it seemed like every studio suddenly had to become a CGI studio. But unless you are at an almost Pixar level, it is next to impossible to capture the same warmth and feeling that you get from the pain-staking craftsmanship that comes from stop-motion. Aardman had not had the practice and experience that Pixar had had by that time, and as good as they were able to do with their limited experience, it wasn’t what they are truly good at.
The Aardman touch has not been entirely removed, the film still has a vaguely British feel, there’s a bit of wordplay, some silly slapstick; it’s just that most of what makes Aardman, Aardman, has been suppressed in favor of belch jokes, crotch hits, overused tropes, and pop songs. These things are not automatically awful, and I have seen them be used effectively, even by Aardman, but here, while they were better used than many other examples, it still felt like they were trying way too hard to appeal to a standard DreamWorks target market.
In the end, whatever the real story may be behind whatever happened to get Flushed Away made, it was still practically a failure. The film made $178 million on a $149 million budget, and that wasn’t enough for DreamWorks executives. With two films still in development for their five picture deal, DreamWorks cut ties with Aardman, and went back to focusing on their own brand of animation. Both sides say that this split was a mutual agreement, and while there’s no way to know if that’s the PR team talking, I think both companies are better off for it.
Aardman has been just as busy as they’ve ever been in the years since DreamWorks, creating short films, animated series, and a few other full length movies. And even though the choice to use CGI to create Flushed Away may not have yielded the greatest results in this case, the Aardman team seems to have taken it as an opportunity to learn to use the medium more efficiently. To this day, they still utilize CGI on a regular basis, and while they only made one other fully CGI film, Arthur Christmas, they continue to use CGI to create things that would be difficult in stop-motion, such as smoke, or fog, or even to speed up production, such as using CGI to animate lips.
And DreamWorks, well, we’re at number 13 of a 35-and-counting movie review series, so you know they didn’t lose much momentum in the post-Aardman years.
Flushed Away may not have been Aardman’s, or DreamWorks’, greatest film, but it certainly wasn’t a horrible one. Its biggest problem is mainly that it’s just very generic and forgettable. Before I went to watch it again for this review, I hadn’t seen it in probably about a decade, and I honestly had no idea what it was about. I genuinely forgot everything about it, aside from the fact that it was about a rat in a sewer. It just didn’t make enough of an impression on me that I wanted to revisit it over the years like I have with Chicken Run or Wallace and Gromit.
If you are at all a DreamWorks fan, there’s a decent chance you’ll enjoy this movie. Even I, who can’t say I loved it, did find it at least somewhat entertaining. Despite its flaws, I can say that there were more than a few actually funny moments, some creative set designs, as well as some really great ideas, even if they weren’t fully realized.
All in all, Flushed Away was an okay film, that was likely a disappointment to Aardman purists. But for a DreamWorks film, it can hold its own with many of their other films released in that era. It may not be perfect, but it has screaming slugs who sing Proud Mary, a French frog mime, and an evil toad voiced by Gandalf, so you can’t say it’s not entertaining.