It was only a matter of time. With the studios setting up animation divisions left, right and centre and big-budget ’toons invading our multiplexes every other week, the days when Nick Park and pals could lavish three years on a painstakingly produced stop-motion masterpiece were clearly numbered. DreamWorks may have indulged Aardman’s quirky eccentricities on Chicken Run and Wallace And Gromit – no doubt biting their collective tongues over every missed deadline or delayed release date – but for their third collaboration something new was needed: a revolutionary gadget capable of reducing the outfit’s workload at a stroke. A little doo-hickey called a ‘computer’...
Fitting, really, that a mouse enabled Aardman to tell a story about mice running wild in London’s sewers. The question, however, was whether the company’s defiantly lo-fi aesthetic would survive the transfer from Plasticine to pixels. And, to be honest, it’s a close-run thing. Indeed, there are moments in David Bowers and Sam Fell’s film – an aerial descent high above the capital, for example, or a speedboat pursuit through its labyrinthine drain system – where you can sense the animators straining at the leash, eager to make as much use of their newfangled toy-box as their rivals over at Pixar, Sony and Blue Sky.
For the most part, though, the core values of the Aardman brand (deadpan humour, verbal witticisms and an almost pathological attention to detail) are carried over intact. The moment mouse-out-of-water Roddy arrives in the teeming Ratropolis (an ingeniously constructed alt- London where recognisable landmarks are fashioned out of everyday garbage), he lands on a pavement sketch by ‘Rodint’; later on, a cursory glance at the amphibian villain’s bookshelf reveals a tome entitled A Brief History Of Slime. “To the rat mobiles!” cries hench-mouse Spike (Andy Serkis), facilitating a Batman gag to add to earlier nods to Finding Nemo, The Fly and Mary Poppins. And who could resist cuddly albino rat thug Whitey (Bill Nighy) when he reveals a recent curry left him with “a bum like a Japanese flag”?
In truth, some of the comedy is a tad too scatological at times, while having so many lively turns on the fringes (Jean Reno’s mercenary Le Frog, Shane Richie’s burping usurper) only shows up Roddy’s essential blandness. Whether this is down to Jackman’s characterisation is a moot point. It’s fair to say, though, that – unlike Winslet’s spunky heroine or McKellen’s robust Toad – he seems ill-at-ease with Aardman’s droll style and a protagonist who remains frustratingly passive from start to finish. Still, he’s the only weak link in a movie that will leave adults and children alike with big smiles all over their faeces.
While not quite as charming or pacy as previous Aardman efforts, Flushed Away is sharp and energetic enough to make it the new House of Mouse.