If you ever needed proof that the ending is the only thing people take away from a movie, watch this film. Flushed Away's first act is poor. It's rushed, ham-handed and doesn't let either its scenes or its characters breathe.
However the second act comes alive and the film keeps getting better until the last act is superb. It ends on such a high that you go away thinking you've watched a brilliant movie... and indeed you have. It's just an oddly misshapen one, the blame for which goes to DreamWorks. They'd been halfway through a five-film deal with Aardman, the first two being Chicken Run and Curse of the Were-Rabbit
, but with this film all that came to an acrimonious end. There had already been tension, for instance over DreamWorks wanting to recast Peter Sallis as Gromit, but the problem here was that this was Aardman's first CGI animated feature. Water is impossible to do convincingly in stop-motion and this film has lots of it. Hence the CGI. This allowed DreamWorks to put in a bid for creative control by animating half the movie over in America.
Of course DreamWorks also tried to impose all kinds of script changes, for instance forcing a rewrite of the original version of the film on the grounds that pirates didn't sell. By the time this was finally in cinemas, Pirates of the Caribbean
had been out for two years. They imposed their usual all-star voice cast, which always irritates me beyond measure even though the performances are usually fine. All this conflict drove up the production costs until Flushed Away ended up costing $149 million to make, nearly $30 million more than Pixar's Cars.
The problem was that Aardman's US box office takings had been disappointing. Were-Rabbit had been a huge critical success and the winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, but it cost $30 million to produce and only took $56 million in America. The fact that it did much better overseas, earning $185 million, was neither here nor there to DreamWorks. The irony of course is that Aardman's animated films are world-class while DreamWorks's are godawful, although having said that I've been hearing good things recently about Kung Fu Panda. All this nonsense ended up endangered two productions that were still in development, a Stone Age comedy called Crood Awakening written by John Cleese and a mockumentary of the Aesop's fable called Tortoise vs. Hare.
So what's the story with Flushed Away? Can we simply say that the good bits are Aardman and the bad bits are DreamWorks? Um... yes, I think so. Well, nearly. Were-Rabbit similarly had a lacklustre first act but then found its groove and thereafter kept getting more awesome. That's true here too. However there's more to it than that. The problems with Flushed Away's first act are out of character for Aardman. This is a company that produced three seconds of usable footage a day on Were-Rabbit. To hear Nick Park talk about the subtleties of human body language is to have your eyes opened to a world that you never even knew existed. Pixar are brilliant at story, but nothing they've produced comes close to Aardman's almost hypnotic take on animated performance.
That's why Flushed Away's first act feels so wrong. The script is fine. It's the clumsy direction that kills it. They're always in a hurry to get to the next shot. They never relax and let the scene breathe or the characters act. Even the main character Roddy's introduction is rubbish despite its length, since it's shot like a music video instead of taking us inside the character as you'd expect from Aardman. I wouldn't go so far as to say I hated the first twenty minutes of this film, but except at odd moments it left me cold. It's charmless, soulless formula that feels as if it's stolen a few Aardman moments from a better film and it's left me eager to see the entire DreamWorks staff thrown down a chute and fed to pirahnas.
Not all the problems are down to Americans, though. The hero rats don't have enough personality. CGI is less characterful than claymation, but Roddy and Rita don't have much going for them visually except for trying to look like the clay versions of themselves. They're fine, but obviously less successful than the more extreme character designs. The huge albino lab rat looks good. The amphibians look great. However it's the slugs, maggots and little flapping fish that I fell in love with and I laughed like a loon at the music videos (performed by "The Slugs") that you'll find as extras on the DVD.
Nevertheless despite all this, the movie won me over. Ian McKellan is allowed all the time he wants to wallow as the Toad and as a result is great. Rita's insane family are a laugh. The Kafka gag was a fun throwaway. Little by little I kept seeing more things I liked... and of course the film has heart. If you stick with it, you'll come to care about Roddy and Rita despite DreamWorks's best efforts. What looked like being a stupid plot detour based on a misunderstanding turned out far better than I'd anticipated as the two leads make their disagreement surprisingly personal.
I've been bashing on about the film's problems, but in the end it's mostly good. Nothing wrong with "good". The greatness would fall into three categories:
1. The action scenes. Flushed Away outdoes even Were-Rabbit for mad gag-filled action that made me laugh out loud. You'd have to be blind, deaf and dead not to love every second of it.
2. Jean Reno's Le Frog and his amphibious henchmen. The moment he showed up with his comedy accent and mile-wide stereotype I was expecting to hate him, but in fact he's brilliant. His mode of locomotion is like nothing I've ever seen before. He might perhaps be a tad offensive if you're French and sensitive, though. Did I catch a Vichy allusion when they pre-emptively surrender? Why, I think I did.
3. The climax. Were-Rabbit's ending was merely the most outstanding part of an excellent movie. Flushed Away's ending makes you float away grinning from ear to ear and thinking you've just watched a masterpiece, despite ten minutes earlier having been merely on the point of grudgingly conceding that maybe this thing wasn't as weak as you'd previously thought. Unbelievable. My only quibble would be with Roddy's speech that ends with, "What do I need family for? What do I need friends for?" That was a shame. Why telegraph what we all know is coming by blatantly setting up his point of view as a straw man to be shot down again? If you're a rat, there's a lot to be said for captivity. It offers security. Food. Vets if you're ill. Nothing trying to eat you. Surely Roddy's later decision would have been stronger if they'd really argued his case here instead of just giving us a straw man.
That's a minor quibble, though. That climax is still one of the most enjoyable ten minutes you'll ever spend with a movie. It also boasts the film's one and only "wow, cool" bit of imagery, as our heroes head for a waterfall. Aardman doesn't normally do eye candy in the usual sense, but that was good.
I wanted to include the singing slugs as a fourth reason for greatness, incidentally. I was torn.
The title's useless. It's relevant to the story, but it's not exactly thrilling. "Let's go watch Flushed Away!" Hardly Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
, is it?
This is a hobbled film that even manages at times to feel ersatz in its Englishness despite a plot that's based of all things on the World Cup Final. It's blatantly sabotaged by people who need to be dragged over sharp rocks by wild horses and then beaten with sticks. However I also loved it. I could complain about DreamWorks until the cows come home, but after watching this film I was ready to call it a must-buy. It has heart, it has jokes and it has the scenery vanishing down Ian McKellan's gullet without even touching the sides. Despite everything I've said, it's still better than anything DreamWorks could dream of, about 90% of Disney's output and even a Pixar or two. I can't believe I'd never heard of it until earlier this year.