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Flushed Away

DreamWorks Animation/Aardman Features (November 3 2006), DreamWorks/Paramount Home Video (February 20 2007), single disc, 84 mins plus supplements, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Rated PG, Retail: $29.99

Storyboard:

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High society pet rodent Roddy’s life is turned upside down when street rat Sid invades his plush pad and flushes him “down the loo” and into the sewers below London’s Kensington Gardens. On trying to find a way home, Roddy soon bumps into the Jammy Dodger’s skipper Rita, in a spot of bother herself with The Toad and some really seedy rats of the underworld. They’re all after a valuable ruby, with which Rita wants to set herself up for life. When Roddy proves the ruby is a fake but offers a real rock from the jewelery box back home, Rita agrees to help him in return, but not without The Toad’s band of rodent henchrats, led by the brilliant but crazed Le Frog, on their tails…

The Sweatbox Review:

It’s such a shame that Flushed Away’s lack of big box office muscle led to the break-up between animation company Aardman and their partners at DreamWorks, since the movie is another winner from the stop-motion masters and better than the recent influx of computer animated fare from both DreamWorks and their major competitors. The twist is, of course, that Aardman converted to CG themselves in order to put Flushed Away on the screen, though much of the film was actually animated at DreamWorks’ Californian studio, overseen by the Bristol, England, Aardman crew.

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Right from the start Flushed Away feels distinctly different from DreamWorks’ usual fare as it starts with a good old fashioned orchestral score instead of a sourced music track, and the big British landmarks seen in the opening credits provides the authenticity in the setting (funny that a story written and directed, and set in Britain, should be animated in deepest Californian Hollywood). These opening sequences are a fun introduction to our hero, with a nice nod to previous projects from both studios, including Wallace & Gromit and Madagascar. Some rather stiff human animation quickly gives way to some great gags including a laugh out loud moment concerning a bit of popcorn, though my one true complaint – unless I’m missing something – is that Roddy’s owner Tabitha tips him a very large packet of treats into the bowl in his cage as she leaves, but there’s not a trace of them in the next shot…!

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As I’d spotted in the trailers, everything still looks too clean and not as “handmade” as the “real” Aardman look, but the CG approximates their more traditional feel well, especially the lip-sync, with its accentuated mouth movements. What’s clever is that the animators seem to have approximated the hand-animated look by “skipping” some frames, which gives the CG animation a unique kinetic feel. Aardman usually produce their stop-motion on twos, and the only real change here is the fluidity of animating on ones and the slightly cleaner look, though the character textures do carry some finger marking for that “authentic” touch.

I was surprised when the move to CG was announced, and feared that Aardman would lose a bit of what makes them special, but there’s was no need to worry. The switch was seen as being the only way to bring this particular story to the screen, due to the sheer size and scale of the sets involved. It was stated that to create a set that could house both human and rat-sized characters would have been prohibitive, but in truth Aardman have faced much tougher challenges in the past and I couldn’t really see anything that might not have been achieved with false perspective or blue-screen/CG composites, with only a very few exceptions that might have meant two sets being built (a miniature miniature, if you will). However, trying to animate the amount of water the script called for was the real technical barrier that had to be breached, so the jump into CG waters was made and it has to be said that the characters are perfectly in tune with the Aardman sensibility, by way of Nick Park, even if they are more rounded and CG-smooth than the fingerprinted models we’re accustomed to.

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Adding much life to them is the excellent voice cast. Despite being stuffed with all-star names, most of them are Brits, seemingly unconcerned about sounding like themselves. All put in some very enjoyable vocal work and do sound like real characters, full of life and all obviously having a ball as opposed to the usual Hollywood types who are all-too-often happy to be slumming it and simply provide their own voice in an animated picture. Hugh Jackman serves very well and even understated as Roddy’s cut glass tones, while Kate Winslett impresses in a friendly role that shaves away a bit of the aloofness we might associated her with. Taking a break from performing physically for animation, Andy Serkis relishes his part opposite Bill Nighy, great fun as henchmen for The Toad (Ian McKellen in an intentionally over the top turn). Perhaps best of all is Le Frog, given total charm by Jean Reno, who seems totally intent to send up his French countrymen with a manic portrayal. I’m no fan of Shane Richie, overexposed in the UK, but he’s directed well here (by David Bowers and Sam Fell) and provides some big laughs, handling that difficult role of being a scallywag heavy that one actually warms to.

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Much of the success in the voices is also down to what they are saying, of course, and the script, by long-time comedy writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, among others including Frasier’s Christopher Lloyd, captures the Aardman style while being distinctly quirky – I can only guess that the film’s box office misfortune (actually not too shabby at around $64m domestic and $145m worldwide) was down to coming at the end of a glut of seemingly like-minded animal comedy cartoons, or possibly because rats don’t make good movie stars. That’s unfortunate, since Flushed Away, along with CORE Animation’s The Wild, are the most overlooked animated pictures of the past year.

I can’t say enough about the way the characters have been written: they’re likeable and well rounded – Roddy especially, who could have come off as annoying, is not the upper class twit you might expect and adapts well to his new surroundings, becoming an easy action man. Rita is great, down to earth and tomboyish, but an independent woman type who runs her own ship (pun intended). Even the villains, who are by turns menacing and comical, are the most fun such characters we’ve had in a film like this for a long while, being well-balanced rather than just randomly amusing and ultimately ineffectual.

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The singing slugs (vocalised by Aardman collaborators Nick Park and Karey Kirkpatrick), and the “interstitials” added throughout production due to their popularity, are perhaps in danger of making one or two too many intrusions, but they do work, and one gag cuts the frogs short just as they are about to sing in the same style, and it’s a well-judged moment; another example of Aardman’s pin-sharp attention to what works or not.

As is Aardman tradition, this is a packed, intricately detailed world, with TONS of pause-button moments well worth going back and catching for a second viewing. Elaborate, but perhaps not with that extra smidgen of detail, like rust on the pipes or paper tears on the “wallpaper” scraps, that a handcrafted artist might have added. There are cute touches all the same, with Roddy’s Kensington home’s DVD library made up of various spoof titles (Ratman Returns (Again) and Goon With The Wind for starters) and, predictably, almost a complete set of DreamWorks titles, most obviously Chicken Run, naturally.

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There are other run movie references throughout, from lines of dialogue (“Is it bird? Is it a plane?”) to onscreen, blink and miss ’em moments (Lady And The Tramp loving slugs, Han Solo in a freezer), and even recognizable sound effects! The “Have you seen my dad?” Finding Nemo gag is cheap but disposable enough to be gone before it might offend, but again there are far more subtle lines and names sprinkled about that a second watch for those pause-button moments is what makes DVD fun.

What I did like is that all the footage from the major scenes and jokes seen and heard in the trailers comes from early in the film (within the first half hour, almost), leaving us with a good hour of “new” material which really felt refreshing in this day and age of previews that throw in everything and their kitchen sink. Well, the Flushed Away trailer threw in a toilet bowl instead, but you get my drift, and since over half of the movie hadn’t been given away I was happily surprised by some unexpected moments and twists too!

Harry Gregson-Williams brings a bright and involving score to proceedings, which sometimes sounds reminiscent of other works (the main theme plays very close to one from John Williams’ music for Hook), but carries the action along with panache and certainly adds a layer of epic-ness. Flushed Away is also one of the few animated films of recent times to use source tracks and re-recorded cover versions extremely well within its soundtrack and not just as an excuse for filling a noise crack to suggest an action sequence more frantic than it actually is.

Flushed Away plays with the notion of family throughout, from Roddy not really having one, to Rita’s bulging family home, to the villains’ camaraderie and even extending to the film’s audience, for which Flushed should be one of those all-family communions that we rarely all get together to share nowadays. It reminds us that having such people to fall back and rely on is as important as making new friends and bringing them into our own families, and it’s a core sentiment that is handled subtly in the story’s background, though one that we can all hopefully identify with. Flushed Away has fun, adventure and a boo-hiss villain, but it’s also a warm and very welcome movie.

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Despite still being ostensibly British on the outside, this is probably Aardman’s most instantly international movie, perhaps as a result of the DreamWorks touch. For a film that apparently had much wrangling between the teams behind the scenes, Flushed never feels fragmented or the result of opposing visions. DreamWorks’ choice to canceling their five-film contract after only two such features leaves the bigger American outfit a company without a partnership with an award-winning critics’ darling – their Pixar if you will – and potentially as a one-trick Studio that essentially makes the same kind of brash, streetwise, pop-culture filled comedy film every time, heavily reliant on the Shrek franchise as their only sure-bet franchise.

Flushed Away isn’t the movie that should go down in history as the catalyst behind this break-up, and as a provider of more varied films, whoever ends up snapping Aardman’s distribution up is going to be making a smart decision. After all, who else could make the sinking of a boat called the Jammy Dodger such a poignant moment in such an exceptionally entertaining adventure?

Is This Thing Loaded?

The disc starts, in usual DreamWorks fashion, with a preview for their recent release Over The Hedge on DVD, though that their product is now distributed by Paramount isn’t lost on the mountain, who add disc-centric promos for their own Charlotte’s Web remake.

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The menus are pretty basic affairs, but have some fun interlinking animation between options and accompanying soundtracks. Apart from the obvious selections, one’s eye is first caught by the logos pointing to sneak peeks for upcoming DreamWorks fare Bee Movie (the fun first live-action “windshield” teaser) and Shrek The Third’s first full trailer. Both are presented in letterboxed 4×3 and run around five minutes combined.

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Those once viewed, it’s on to the Special Features and my first stop, the Filmmaker’s Commentary. Directors Sam and Dave take a bit of time to warm up and don’t really reveal any ground-shaking tricks of production, preferring to mention jokes changed or cut (Chicken Run’s Nick and Fletcher were set for a cameo at one point!), and the reportedly fractious production is only slightly referenced to as “doubts about the British accents”. But it’s a warm chat, if not bulging with revelation on the development or the switch from stop-motion to CGI. As a DreamWorks plus, the track is subtitled, a lovely touch, in all languages.

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Although prominently promoted on the packaging, even warranting their own front sticker, there’s not an awful lot in Slug Songs, being two clips of the musical slugs singing the choruses from two tracks. The best is I Don’t Feel Like Dancing, while the added Pump It brings the total playing time up to around a minute – yep, just one minute.

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Flushed Away Tunes: The Music Of Flushed Away is a bright ‘n’ breezy profile of Gregson-Williams’ work on the movie, with plenty of scoring session footage and an interview with the composer. Gregson-Williams talks about his process and the directors chime in on how the music helps to tell their story. Presented in 4×3, this interesting feature runs around nine minutes. The second half of it covers the choice of music tracks used as story and score pieces, and how the singing slugs went from being a one-off gag to popping up throughout the movie.

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Meet The Cast is another featurette, again running around nine minutes and presented in 4×3, which takes a trip behind the microphone to – hey! – meet the star voices. This is typical soundbite promo material with the big names, but there’s some good info packed in and it’s always fun to see the actors in the studio recording their lines. It’s not much more than a run-through of the characters and who plays them, but it’s clear the stars are throwing themselves into their roles as opposed to simply providing a star voiceover.

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Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit is nothing more than a highlighted DVD trailer (no such joy for Flushed Away itself, natch), while the DreamWorks Animation Video Jukebox is perhaps the biggest waste of eight minutes of disc space I’ve come across in a while on DVD. Basically, it’s just a bunch of 4×3 clips of musical sequences (Donkey’s I’m A Believer from Shrek, Car Wash from Shark Tale, etc) from other DreamWorks movies. It’s not exactly like DreamWorks has anywhere near the catalog of songs a Disney, or any other studio for that matter, has. Added to this is that none of the songs are original material, being all covers, so this is an odd and scantly related choice for inclusion, nothing more than an advertisement for the titles’ DVDs, which the menu urges can be bought on disc “today”.

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That’s it for collectors, but heading into DreamWorks Kids provides some extra fun. Flushed Away Tunes links to the Slug Songs from above and the Flushed Away Jukebox, which isn’t anything more than the song-tracked moments from the movie accessible as an alternate scene selection option. Build A Slug has Supervising Animator Jason Spencer-Galsworthy going back to Aardman basics and grabbing some Plastercine modelling clay to demonstrate how to create of the singing slugs for “real”. The 13-minute piece is only entertaining to see the development of the slug over time and as such is pleasant, if slightly overlong.

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Learn To Draw Roddy is another such feature but one done without the “handcrafted” care and attention. A voiceover and video graphic runs through this at a quick pace, prompting a pause of the disc if you need to catch up – I can see the screen burns now! A Maze Of Pipes is the obligatory 16×9 game in which the player must steer the Jammy Dodger through the underground sewers. Cool, or at least it would have been if the player actually had any control over the direction of the boat and something actually happened. Pointless and irritating, and not a lot of fun for anyone.

Much better are the DVD-ROM features, which open in a web browser but are actually located on the disc. Being in partnership cahoots with one-time dominant printer company Hewlett-Packard, it would be a surprise for a DreamWorks disc not to sport the requisite Printables, and as such they are present and correct here – in abundance! Options for Flushed Away bookmarks, coloring pages, games, finger puppets, magnets, masks, photo frames, postcards. posters, stencils, iron-ons and much more – phew! – are all included, and one has to applaud DreamWorks on the sheer amount of material compiled, and all of it of a very decent quality too. I’m just glad I’m not going to have to pay the ink bill when some parents get the request to print out the whole lot – all recommended by the Studio, of course, using HP products!

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Sticking with the partners – and the volume! – is the Flushed Away Underwater Adventure, a collection of, count ’em, 21 games “brought to you by AMD”, DreamWorks’ rendering chips of choice. Again, one can’t fault DreamWorks’ devotion to providing fun content for its younger audiences, and I’ll admit to getting quite a big kick out of the ones I tried myself, all of them being terrifically crafted as well as any otherwise expensive CD-ROM. Great (addictive) stuff! Finally, the standard Weblinks are provided, for the DreamWorks Kids (which is in major need of an update) and Flushed Away movie sites, which offer more “fun and games”, downloads and more.

Original trailers and more of the suspiciously light “big addition” of the Slug Songs would have been nice, and I was really, really hoping for something on the process change for Aardman from clay stop-motion to computer animation. The press release and Amazon features state several extras that would have appeased me in this area and filled out the disc nicely, but I can’t find the From Clay To CG: A Technical Journey featurette, the Jammy Dodger Fly-Thru, Animator’s Gallery or Behind The Scenes Interactive Tour for the life of me, even after referring back to DreamWorks to check if they are supposed to be here. Perhaps if someone finds them they could drop me a line, as these would have made the disc perfect – but even without them DreamWorks has once again shown top form in treating even their supposed failed offspring with love, and Flushed Away is truly far from being a failure.

Case Study:

As bog-standard as they get, with the sleeve tucked into one of those kid-protected cases with the extra tabs on the side. Cover art is pleasing but mentions none of the bonus features that matter, preferring to push the games and slugs. No chapter insert is included.

Ink And Paint:

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As usual – and welcome – from DreamWorks, the Studio has presented Flushed Away in its correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio, as evidenced by the slivers of black along north and south of the frame. Even though the disc has a fair amount packed on to it, the used space only clocks in at just over 6gb, so perhaps those “missing extras” would have filled up the remainder. The image comes from a digital source and is such rock steady and without grain, looking positively vivacious even in the darker sequences. A picture of depth that looks as good as any CG animated feature I’ve yet seen on standard DVD. A full-screen version is also available, which merely lops the ends of the frame off either side, making it over packed, less consistent in the composition, and ugly. Stick with the very fine widescreen disc but be sure to check which one you’re picking up since your only clue is the minute wording on the bottom left of the front cover.

Scratch Tracks:

Matching the visuals (and really nowadays substandard picture or audio wouldn’t pass any test) is the soundtrack. Presented in Dolby 5.1, dialogue is clear, music spacious, and effects zoom around the room and never let up. There’s perhaps not a truly strong demo sequence in the movie (Flushed Away is more subtle in an amazing but not showy way), but it’s lively like the film and there’s lots to enjoy.

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Final Cut:

Flushed Away surprised me greatly after the so-so notices it received in theatrical release. I learned a long, long time ago not to trust box office returns in gauging how good or bad a movie is, but can’t get my head around why this one didn’t clean up to a higher degree; Aardman’s film is tremendously entertaining good fun, and certainly one of the better, less busy and noisy DreamWorks outings. It’s nice to see the disc jump in at number one in the DVD sales and I hope a wider audience finds it and gets as much out of it as I did – Flushed Away deserves to be remembered for much more than the break-up of an otherwise strong partnership and will hopefully, in time, be singled out as perhaps the real best animated feature of the crowded 2006. “To the ratmobile!”

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

flushed-22.jpg MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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