What is it about kid's films? Or, rather, what is it about kid's films recently? Computer animation has made making kid's film's easier, it seems, based on the flurry of dreck like Chicken Little and The Barnyard; the better question is if computer animation has made releasing them too easy. The case in point this week is Flushed Away, the latest collaboration between Aardman Animation (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run) and Dreamworks Animation (Shrek, Madagascar). Flushed Away combines two worlds - the design and aesthetic of Aardman's gentle, claymation stories with the computer-generated spectacle of Dreamworks' industrial approach to animation. The result is a curious, unfixed mix of the good, the bad and the ugly -- while Flushed Away has a certain English whimsy to it, it also has the overstuffed, joke-a-millisecond kind of excess that executives think render animated films breezy trifles, but actually turns them into leaden chores. Or, put another way: In Flushed Away, a group of minion frogs in the service of a mercenary bad guy known as Le Frog (and voiced by Jean Reno) are given the order to action; they immediately hurl up their hands and cry "We surrender!" Is this funny, to a kid? Is it funny to any grown-up whose I.Q. is higher than their belt size?
Before Le Frog enters the arena, though, Flushed Away begins as pampered house pet rat Roddy (voiced by Hugh Jackman) is left alone as his owner leaves the house for a holiday. Roddy promptly goes on a high-spirited spree, playing with all the toys and dolls and neat geegaws, but we also notice he's a bit lonely. A plumbing mishap leads loud, boisterous rat Sid (Shane Richie) to Roddy's home, and soon Roddy is plunged into the toilet and out of his paradise. In the sewers, Roddy finds a small London, underground -- a teeming Rodent-opolis of families, commerce and bustling activity. Roddy's quest to get back home brings him to the dock of ship's pilot Rita (voiced by Kate Winslet), who may be able to get him to the surface -- but that's waylaid by the manipulations of the silken-voiced mastermind known as The Toad (Ian McKellen), who's plotting to wipe the sewer rodent-opolis away. ... ... And I hope you could follow that, because I barely could while in the theater. There are Aardman animation touches here -- little sight gags like a container of liquid nitrogen that reads "WARNING: RATHER COLD" and quieter physical bits like when a group of slugs run from danger as fast as they can, which is to say, not very fast at all. Or the fact that the computer-animation replicates the imperfect, jittery frame rate of clay-mation Aardman-style mouth-movement and subliminally reminds us of the hand-shaped charms of Wallace and Gromit. But that gracious, gentle sense of understatement gets blasted off the screen by the barrage of pop-culture references thrown at the screen; there are seven separate names in the writing credits of Flushed Away, and that's not even including all the names listed in the final credits who contributed 'additional material.' So we get a brief splash of Roddy in James Bond gear re-creating the opening credits -- and, again, do kids get that? Does that mean anything to them?
Ironically, Flushed Away succeeds the most when it tries the least -- in the gentle scenes contrasting Rita's bustling family with Roddy's empty privilege, or in the simple daffyness of Toad's masterplan, or even in the film's affection for convoluted Rube Goldberg-style slapstick and well-timed physical comedy. But those moments are few and far between in an ocean of animation in-jokes, belch comedy and incredibly stale cultural stereotypes.
The animation in Flushed Away is the best that money can buy, of course, which means it's very good in a sort of off-the-rack fashion; there's no feeling of sensibility or shape or vision to the material that might have come from a single human being as opposed to a committee. (Say what you will about Pixar's Cars, but at the very least, after watching it, you knew that John Lassetter really, really, really likes cars.) The character designs have flashes of wit -- with his corpulent, comfortable air of menace, Toad looks as if Sydney Greenstreet were, in fact, actually green -- and it's hard to not feel a flash of attachment thanks to vocal performances from actors of the caliber of Winslet or Jackman. But in the end, Flushed Away feels less like something hand-crafted to fill some artist's creative need and more like an industrial product hurried off the line as the end result of the work of many hands to fit a release slot and match up with the street date of the videogame tie-in.