British drollery is fueled by American aggressiveness to mixed results in “Flushed Away.” This first adventure in computer animation by Blighty’s celebrated Aardman studio succeeds in retaining the trademark look of the company’s clay figure stop-motion “Wallace & Gromit” classics and “Chicken Run.” But the tone has become more than a bit coarse, as if the filmmakers had heeded a call to compete with some of the more raucous animated hits of recent vintage. Result is a kidpic long on invention but short on likability, indicating midrange commercial results with the target market.
While the setting of so many of the top-grossing animated features, not to mention a certain TV cartoon starring a sponge, has been the deep blue sea, “Flushed Away” is set in a bustling border town right on the H2O divide: the sewers of London, where all manner of creatures end up.
The principals are mice and rats, from very different ends of the class spectrum. From up top comes Roddy St. James (voiced by Hugh Jackman), a Kensington pet mouse whose posh life is rudely intruded upon by uncouth sewer rat Sid (Shane Richie), who takes over the impeccably appointed flat and flushes Roddy down the loo.
Thus does Roddy end up down under, so to speak, in a raucous community that cleverly mirrors the one above it. This intricately detailed reimagining of London made entirely from salvaged garbage remnants — Big Ben contains elements from a house clock, a washing machine and cups, among other items — may be the film’s most considerable achievement; it’s a modern London with a 19th century rude vitality, an environment with which the long-pampered Roddy is ill suited to cope.
The prospects for Roddy making his way back home appear remote for a number of reasons. Beyond logistics, the feisty community is about to be put under siege by the Toad (Ian McKellen), a former privileged pet himself whose malevolence and girth qualify him as an amphibian Jabba the Hutt; his strategy for flooding little London is genuinely inspired.
But before he can implement his plan, Toad, along with his ratty minions (Bill Nighy, Andy Serkis), busies himself trying to do away with Roddy and his new pal of convenience, Rita (Kate Winslet), a working-class rat whose trawler may offer a means of escape. In a film of less than embraceable characters, redheaded Rita stands out as a singular creation, a tough, rough-around-the-edges scrapper who wouldn’t normally give a wuss like Roddy the time of day but soon takes up the challenge of his rescue.
As directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell, first-time feature helmers with long-term Aardman affiliations, the film boasts undeniably smart and eye-catching qualities that are significantly diluted by the relentlessly frantic and overbearing behavior of most characters; someone is always loudly imposing himself upon another, to diminishing returns of enjoyment.
When Roddy and Rita finally get a couple of quiet moments to themselves, the lack of general noise comes as a welcome but nonetheless startling relief. And it could be that Roddy comes off as rather less charming than might have been intended. Despite Jackman’s smooth, ingratiating delivery, Roddy is simply too useless — especially in the shadow of Winslet’s vigorously voiced, can-do Rita — to be very interesting.
Other characterizations, notably McKellen’s expansively theatrical Toad, a creature of elegant offensiveness, and Jean Reno’s as Toad’s verrry French cousin Le Frog, who insists upon a five-hour dinner break before pursuing pressing matters, are flavorsome.
Despite having been created on a computer rather than physically molded, the critters still possess the lumpen, forehead and brow-dominant characteristics commonly associated with Aardman. The underground settings and free-associating decor elements create a dark, jumbled look quite at odds with the crisp, clean colorations of most mainstream computer animation. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is an energetic asset.