"Flushed Away" May Be Typical, But Does Typical Well
What is it you expect from a film? The trailers of any given movie will lead you to expect something. The history of the company producing the film will lead you to expect something. There are plenty of folks who have no sense of expectations when they go to see a film, but let’s face it – they’re not the sort of people who would frequent this site and read this review, are they? I put this to you at the forefront because Flushed Away is a little difficult to define in terms of what you may or may not be anticipating it to be. No doubt, at this point, you are familiar with the trailers or the TV spots or the numerous ads; Dreamworks seems to be giving it quite an impressive advertising heft. No doubt you are also aware of Aardman animation and its style. Personally, I find the two implied tones of Flushed Away, as garnered from these separate sources, at considerable odds. The adverts are rock’n’roll fast and highlight the dumb gags. The Aardman connection implies quiet introspection and clever yet humble gadgetry. Flushed Away is both and neither of these things.
The statement above would seem to say that the film has no singular sustainable tone. That’s not necessarily the case. It’s simply that the film is crazy and funny for a great deal of its running time, but has the ability to slow down somewhat at key moments for more gentle scenes that still retain humor. This puts it in some contrast with the non-stop crazy of various Dreamworks films, and in slightly starker contrast with the Aardman atmospheric comedies of manners. Flushed Away is often a comedy of manners as well, but it frames the jokes into a chase movie. Inevitably, I’m leading towards a comparison with things like the Pink Panther films; since the directors admitted to me that this was exactly what they were going for, I can’t condemn that. It’s a comedy, from tip to toe, and while it’s not always aiming to bust your gut with every instance (as opposed to a film like The Emperor’s New Groove, where every scene is an excuse/opportunity for gags and gaglines), it wants you to be light and happy throughout. In that, the film is a smashing success. Highlights include a charming impromptu song from main character Roddy, a wild and wet boat-versus-eggbeaters chase, and a hilarious new dual use for a cell phone and a mime.
Still, I can’t lay off just because it’s a comedy. Comedies are fragile things, teetering on a balancing point through the whole story because they don’t require the kind of emotional rawness that cements you into a story and its characters like a good drama can. More than dramas, comedies depend on tone and detail, and a few poor ones can throw you off as an audience member. Flushed Away is pretty good about avoiding the pitfalls that can exist, but it’s not flawless. Slapstick is tough stuff no matter what you’re doing, and its difficulty in animation is tenfold due to not seeing real people in real pain, which is for whatever reason funny. The slapstick depends on visual ingenuity; most of Flushed Away‘s slapstick has the creativity to work, and yet some of the jokes are a tad obvious. The main setting of the film is bound to set some wary viewers’ worry-o-meters a-flickering, but the toilet humor is kept to an absolute minimum – still, a maggot joke midway struck me as startlingly gross and mood-killing. Most of all, like many animated comedies, Flushed Away struggles with its own plot. The villain’s machinations are not in and of themselves funny, so inevitably the story veers away from what it was doing (telling various jokes in various fashions) to usual good vs. evil climaxing. The film sadly grows more standard with this section, despite the surrounding positive qualities in the characters and the comedy. The film’s theme, the need for family and friends, does not necessitate the action-filled third act, and while it won’t let you down from the previous highs of the film, neither does it really plus the experience.
Much ado has and will continue to be made of the animation, particularly the format switch for Aardman. Their reason for doing so – too much water for stop-motion – is a good one, so I don’t feel the need to complain about it being CGI; it’s not Aardman’s fault that there’s been a glut this year. And, most importantly, it looks good, it feels somewhat handmade, and it still definitely retains the Aardman style (albeit somewhat more frantic, fitting the film’s nature). Certainly no complaints in the vocal realm. Despite the fact that this is undoubtedly Aardman’s most celebrity-packed film yet, they’re all well-chosen and damn good actors. I daresay that British/Aussie celebrities are preferable on the whole to most American ones. No matter how big a deal they are, they’re deftly familiar with voice-over’s requirement of focusing on language and sound. There’s a strong effort on the parts of all the actors towards making unique characters, with Hugh Jackman, Andy Serkis and Bill Nighy especially changing up their natural vocal rhythms. I could listen to Ian McKellan all day.
I liked this film, and the star rating below is what I call a “strong” 3-star rating. It’s not “good with some reservation,” like some of my 3-star ratings have been. It’s good. Quite good, even. It’s just not a challenge for Aardman in storytelling. Genre comedy will always have its place and its appeal, but unless it really cracks me up to a point of no control, I tend to merely like it but not entirely love it. The familiarity of the plot structure hurts the comedy, because only really unique riffs on old story points will actually hide the formula, and I don’t want to be thinking about formula when I’m trying to laugh. But still, Flushed Away does a lot of things right and even does its lesser elements well, and you’ll almost certainly enjoy it.