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November 1-7, 2006

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'Flushed Away'

Pipe Dream: Roddy the rat must survive the sewers of London.

Ratted Out

'Flushed Away': The parable of the sewer

By Richard von Busack

A GROTTY, sort-of unauthorized update to The Wind in the Willows, the DreamWorks/Aardman computer-animated feature Flushed Away has one big idea: updating Toad (no "Mr." this time) and making him a royalist snob. He was once a member of the Windsor household. Exile from the palace left him with unconquerable snobbery and a genocidal hatred of rats. After all the fawning over the empty crowned heads in Marie Antoinette, Flushed Away's raspy satire of the royals proves all the more keen. Toad's sacred treasure trove is stuffed with discarded royal crap, coronation mugs and Prince Charles bobbleheads, and the Prince of Wales is caricatured as a bucktoothed version of Wallace, of Aardman's Wallace and Gromit.

The Toad is richly voiced by Ian McKellen, who makes his r's reverberate like rolling thunder. Once again, McKellen rescues an indifferent movie. Toad has a Bond-villain-style doomsday plan, which is discovered by a pair of mismatched rats. One of the rodents is pampered but lonely pet Roddy (voiced by Hugh Jackman, in a part that might have been more proper for Hugh Grant). While his companion people are away on vacation, a disturbance in the plumbing allows Sid, a gluttonous sewer rat, into the Kensington flat where Roddy lives. Roddy tries to trick Sid into believing the toilet is a Jacuzzi—all the better to send him back home. Sid is too wise for the ruse, and Roddy is flushed down into the world of the sewers instead. The water works contain a subterranean version of Piccadilly Circus, resembling the dumpy Times Square in A Bug's Life. Trapped far from home, Roddy seeks the aid of a boat captain called Rita. She's voiced by Kate Winslet, but the pointed face, the slim hips and the air of brusqueness seem to be modeled on Rachel Griffiths. The two uneasy allies cross paths with the Toad and his henchmen—a skinhead rat called Whitey and his tinier feral chum Spike.

Flushed Away is easily the least of Aardman's cartoons. It's uncharacteristically gross. Foreigner bashing is an old British tradition, so much so that one could expect a little more deftness in it. The "random wrong telephone number gets a Chinese restaurant" joke is older than Confucius, and we must sit through an endless bit about a group of French frogmen run by Le Frog (Jean Reno), in which they are damned as surrender-monkeys.

Despite some charm, like Roddy's plastic-guitar serenade of Rita, Flushed Away shows that even the top-notch talents at Aardman can contribute to the computer-animation glut. This medium is racked with growing pains. Once astonishing technique and chase sequences no longer save the day automatically. Inept writing shows through now as it never did back when the medium was new and exciting. Five scripters on Flushed Away shows that no one could sufficiently develop this premise. The irritability of the characters reflects the general desperation of the filmmakers. And the class- struggle aspect, the conflict between Kensington and the sewers, isn't fully embraced. The Bond films that Flushed Away keeps citing handle the matter of the two Englands with more skill, in their eternal civil servant vs. evil plutocrat plots. Even at the risk of falling into a rut, this pastiche should—like all pastiches—probably have given up and followed the formula.

Movie Times Flushed Away (PG; 86 min.), directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell, written by Fell et al., photographed by Brad Blackbourn and Frank Passingham and with the voices of Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman, opens Nov. 3.

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