The other day, I was reminded that Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was the first movie—or at least the first major Hollywood movie—to show a flushing toilet. I wonder what Hitch, or the censors he offended, would have said if they could have foreseen that, less than half a century later, his fellow Brits would make a family-friendly animated cartoon in which a flushing toilet is one of the central plot devices.
Indeed, it's right there in the title. Flushed Away concerns a mouse named Roddy (voice of Hugh Jackman) who has been living a cushy, if caged, life as a child's pet in a posh London neighborhood. One day, while the humans are away, a slobby sewer rat named Sid (Shane Richie) emerges from the kitchen sink and, in no time at all, begins to act like the place is his own private pigpen. Roddy tries to get rid of him by tricking him into thinking the toilet is a Jacuzzi, but Sid sees through this immediately and sends Roddy spinning and swirling down the pipes.
The rest of the movie takes place almost entirely in the sewer system, where Roddy discovers a thriving society of rodents, amphibians, insects, slugs and fish, all modeled after modern-day England; there are streets, and bobbies, and doomsday prophets, and even fish-and-chips shops (though it is not clear whether they do, in fact, serve the talking fish). Given how scatological even family films have become in recent years, Flushed Away could easily have indulged in gross-out gags, but thankfully, for the most part, it refrains from that (apart from one or two bits, like the scene early on in which Roddy mistakes a chocolate bar for something else).
The film—directed by first-time feature directors David Bowers and Sam Fell from a script credited to Fell and no less than six other writers—takes a while to find its footing or to build any sort of momentum. Okay, Roddy's lost, and he wants to get home—that seems clear enough. So he tracks down a boat captained by a mouse named Rita (Kate Winslet). But she's being pursued by a couple of gangster rats named Spike (Andy Serkis) and Whitey (Bill Nighy), who want a ruby that she may have stolen from their boss—a pompous, over-dramatic amphibian who is obsessed with the monarchy, and who is called, simply, The Toad (Ian McKellen). And no sooner is the jewel taken care of, in a manner of speaking, than we discover that The Toad has a much bigger, and even more dastardly, plan up his sleeve.
As another critic once remarked about Shark Tale, this movie has lots and lots of plot, and lots of gags to go with each new plot twist, but it's difficult at times to figure out what the story is. Is it that Roddy wants to get home? Is it that Rita needs the jewel? Is it that The Toad's plans for sewer domination must be stopped?
Fortunately, the film throws just enough lunacy at us to keep things entertaining even when we're not really sure where it's going. Like other films produced by DreamWorks and Aardman Animation (Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), Flushed Away is loaded with groan-worthy puns ("Pardon me, my fly's undone," says The Toad when an insect he swallowed tries to escape) and pop-culture references (I spotted nods to James Bond, Superman, The Fly, Batman, Lady and the Tramp, Finding Nemo and Mary Poppins, among others), and it playfully mocks horror-movie clichés, as well (the old fisherman who takes Roddy to the docks where Rita can be found speaks into a bottle to make his voice echo).
But the film is at its best when it turns human artifacts toward new purposes (such as the chase scene in which the rats ride egg-beaters as though they were speed boats), or when it unashamedly sends up national stereotypes (old British women go inexplicably nuts over Tom Jones, Americans are dumb tourists, and the French—who are frogs, of course—are quick to surrender). These two elements come together in a deliriously funny scene, when The Toad addresses our heroes through a cell phone worn by one of the villainous frogs, and the frog in question happens to be a mime who supplements The Toad's ominous words with glib body language.
And then there are the slugs. The first time we see one, it's basically a throwaway gag, but the slugs build, and build, and build their presence throughout the film until they become a sort of Greek chorus, popping up at unexpected times to set the mood and comment on the action through shrieks and songs. They are kind of like the mice in the Babe movies, but slightly more involved in the action. (Attention must also be paid to the film's intriguing mix of animation techniques; while this is Aardman's first CGI feature, the characters have been designed to look—and even move—like the claymation models that populated Aardman's earlier films.)
Things like this keep the movie entertaining, and by the end, it turns out the film has an actual message to pass on, and it's a good one, to boot: Community is better than isolation; and being involved in the lives of others, however messy they or their environment might be, is better than living in a world of self-serving pleasures.Discussion starters
- What does this film say about family, and community? Do you think Roddy should have stayed in his former home, or moved to the sewer? Why
- What about The Toad? What role have family, community, or attachments played in his own life? Should we feel any sympathy for him
- What do you make of the doomsday prophet? Is he a mockery of a type of religious figure, or not? Note his prophecy, and whether any part of it comes true.
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Flushed Away is rated PG for crude humor (including a scene in which a man's crotch is hit by several objects in a row, a scene in which a woman throws her underwear to a man singing a Tom Jones song, plus a reference or two to things that look like they might belong in a toilet), and some language (mostly of the "good grief" variety).
Photos © Copyright DreamWorks Animation / Paramount Pictures
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 11/09/06
Do you love Wallace and Gromit? Did Chicken Run make you cheer?
Then you're probably excited about Flushed Away, the latest film from the English entertainment engine called Aardman Animation. Directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell, this is the first computer-animated movie from the talented team that unleashed The Curse of theWere-Rabbit on audiences last year.
But there's a big difference in this story about a pet mouse and a roguish rat. Roddy (voiced by Hugh Jackman) and Sid (Shane Richie) are not made out clay, like Wallace and Gromit or all those fowl folk in Chicken Run. They're the first computer-animated characters that Aardman has put on the big screen.
But fear not—this is not just another talking-animal tale along the lines of Madagascar and The Wild. It's a smart, sly, exciting adventure that preserves the wit and wisdom we've come to expect from Aardman.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "There have been a number of fine computer-animated movies this year already, and Flushed Away is one of the best of the lot. … Co-directors David Bowers and Sam Fell combine this zippy animation with a simple but smartly entertaining script to delightful effect, while imparting a warm message that, without friends and family, life, no matter how luxurious, is ultimately empty."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "If Flushed Away doesn't reach the heights of demented genius of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit or even the lesser charms of Chicken Run, it's still got a goofy inventiveness that puts it in the better half of this year's crop of CGI films, along with Cars, Over the Hedge, Ice Age 2: The Meltdown, and Monster House, and above The Ant Bully, The Wild, and Barnyard."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) writes, "Viewers don't have to be politically correct to be uncomfortable, if not offended, at the preponderance of ethnic stereotypes on display here. Even if one finds such jokes humorous, they might also feel underwhelmed by a story that never coalesces. While boys might enjoy some of the chase scenes and sly humor—many of the gags are funny—there's not much here for young girls. Rita's self-sufficiency and care for her family are admirable, but Roddy isn't much of a suitor. The duo's mixed motives—like the movie itself—leave something to be desired."
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says it's "neither epic nor awful." He notes "an engaging emphasis on friendship" and a "pro-family" message. He concludes that it reminds him "of Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes cartoons of yesteryear. Replace 3-D computer-generated images with hand-drawn caricatures, tone down the modern insults, insert a bit more smoking and drinking, and this story could have been told 50 years ago."
While Kathy Bledsoe (Past the Popcorn) finds "no great morals or deep, hidden meanings," she raves that it's "just plain hilarious. … From the opening moments the viewer is literally assaulted with sight gags and visual puns that seem to include everything that could be thought of to lampoon." And she praises "masterful writing and editing." She also writes about how much she enjoyed the animated slugs.
Mainstream critics are happy to welcome the Aardman team back to the screen, even if they aren't as happy with Flushed Away as they were with Wallace and Gromit.