Earlier this week I was surfing through the morning shows and came upon a CBS segment on high-tech haunted houses. Once a monument to how many satisfying shocks you could wring out of a block of dry ice and the bang of an old door, haunted homes are now awash in computer effects and pricey automation. But as one ghoul put it, without a human to jump from behind an occasional shrub, it's worthless.
I thought of Flushed Away.
It was made by the London-based Aardman Animation, which has specialized for more than a decade in labor-intensive, frame-by-frame, clay-figure animation. The Wallace & Gromit pictures and Chicken Run - those are signature Aardman. And that signature is quite literal: Beyond its hand-molded characters with lumpen features, the studio is known for ensuring that human fingerprints remain on each and every clay surface. (Animators even carve their initials into a few animated bums.)
Flushed Away is (though I'm just assuming here) a doleful reminder that any business so committed to hand-crafted, detailed-obsessed quality is a business unable to keep up with the assembly line. So what we have is Aardman's first computer-animated film (Hollywood's busiest assembly line at the moment). The good news is computer animation can design a character that looks as though it were made by hand. The bad news is you can still tell the difference.
That human touch is M.I.A.
The worse news is Aardman didn't view computer animation as a cheaper means to a classier end but as an entire aesthetic. Flushed Away, in other words, is in the toilet. Trademark Aardman is here (dead eyes, British accents, wry comments on class) but the tone is pure, coarse run-of-the-mill studio assembly line - frantic action, cute animated characters dancing to pop songs (within the first few minutes), an abundance of celebrity throats, the lack of a single original idea.
Not to mention, plenty of animated films go for cheap burps, crass blasts of flatulence, and the occasional index finger up the nose. (This has all those and so many blows to cartoon crotches that it becomes a running joke.) But to deliver an animated feature with a leading man who could be related (say, a third or fourth cousin) to Mickey Mouse and literally set the thing in a sewer - well, is that innovative?
Flushed Away is nothing special but it was undeniably made by smart people, and if there's a cold sheen to the animation that wasn't there before in Aardman films, a few of those famous voices help fill the vacuum. Hugh Jackman is ingratiating and gamely theatrical as Roddy St. James, a pampered pet mouse who has the run of his house until a sewer rat elbows in and flushes Roddy away - to the big, bad outside world (delivering yet another overused theme of modern animated pictures).
But still, be grateful Flushed Away wallows away in a gutter.
Roddy washes up in a border town - a clever recreation of above ground London, complete with matchstick Big Bens and a London Bridge made of cartons. The more Flushed Away explores this makeshift city, the more it grows on you. Kate Winslet is the rodent skipper of an orange juice container. Ian McKellen brings back his Lord of the Rings growl as an evil frog who plans to swamp subterranean London during the bathroom-break of a televised British soccer match. There's nothing so odd and idiosyncratic as Wallace and Gromit and a quest for cheese. Directors David Bowers and Sam Fell are not storytellers. (Their Roddy is almost unnecessary to the plot.)
But you know a human is involved - and not a marketing team - when a squad of French frogs leap into action but a single frog asks, "What about dinner?"
Which stops the lead frog.
"We leave in five hours."