Flushed Away has two strikes against it before it even gets to the plate: It's yet another CGI feature about a giddy crowd of talking animals, crammed into a year where such films have gone beyond commonplace and well into redundant, and it sports a relentlessly lowbrow, toilet-themed ad campaign. But it has one large counterbalancing point in its favor: It emerges from the house-of-hits studio Aardman Animations, home of consistently clever features like Chicken Run and the Wallace & Gromit stories. And while first-time directors David Bowers and Sam Fell are relative Aardman neophytes, and the extensive roster of consulting writers (most notably, Chicken Run co-director Peter Lord) bode ill for a unified vision, Flushed Away still carries the Aardman magic touch.
Granted, the opening could be stronger. In a posh London mansion, a spoiled pet rat named Roddy (Hugh Jackman) lounges in a literal gilded cage, cavorting to "Dancing With Myself" and living a life of luxury. Then a lowbrow sewer rat arrives and steals his place, flushing him down the toilet to a bustling, chummy sewer ratropolis. Initially full of fish-out-of-water clumsiness and panic, Roddy blunders into and thoroughly complicates a long-running conflict between an aggressive toad kingpin (Ian McKellen) and a scrappy female rat (Kate Winslet). Kid-flick clichés abound, but Flushed Away paves over them with a jaunty pace, whipcrack humor, and a lot of blink-and-you-miss-them film parodies. Once the film introduces a pack of French frog ninjas led by Jean Reno, the goofiness has ramped up to such a height that the plot contrivances get merrily lost in the shuffle.
Flushed Away's CGI doesn't quite manage the handmade charm of Aardman's claymation projects, but it maintains the house's visual style and takes full advantage of the medium's flexibility, with crowded, complicated, ambitious setpieces that beg for a second viewing. But as with the Wallace & Gromit films, most of the fun is in the deft characterizations, the zippy banter, and the joyous sight gags. From the moment the shallow, complacent, selfish Roddy encounters a pretty female counterpart, it's clear that, ho-hum, important lessons are about to be learned and lives are about to be changed. But as with all Aardman films, a wheelbarrow full of sugar accompanies every drop of potentially unpleasant medicine.