One of the most endearing aspects of Aardman’s animated offerings has always been the calm with which the films, whether early shorts or more recent, DreamWorks-patronized features, allowed viewers to soak in the plasticine details of their sublimely handmade craft, from the zigzagging wool in Wallace’s sweater to the clippings nailed to the wall of an aviary prisoner camp. Such calm is mostly missing in Flushed Away, and so are the studio’s stop-motion beauties. Digital animation has elbowed claymation out of the frame and a certain frenetic coarsening has settled over Aardman’s latest, where the gentle drollery of Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit has given way to a deluge of pop-referencing that comes dangerously close to the regurgitations of Shrek and Shark Tale. The title’s winking pun on Hayao Miyazaki sets the parodic tone, as well as the PG-stretching, scatological timbre of the narrative, where a toilet serves as a whirlpool portal between the parallel Londons of pampered pet mice and working-class sewer rats, an upstairs/downstairs structure that soon gets buried in the movie’s frantic rhythms.
When his owners leave on vacation, upper-crust mouse Roddy (Hugh Jackman) parties among the toys until a visitor from the depths, a gluttonous rat named Sid (Shane Richie), crashes his gilded cage; trying to get rid of his new guest, Roddy ends up himself flushed into a rollicking subterranean netherworld of lead pipes and singing slugs, where the garrulous rodent population is the unknowing target of a nefarious plot by another discarded pet, the amphibious villain Toad (Ian McKellen). The plot similarities between Finding Nemo and the hero’s mad-dash to return home, helped by feisty, boat-riding scavenger Rita (Kate Winslet), are not lost on directors David Powers and Sam Fell, who include a forlorn, orange guppy among their salty gags. (Other moments to be cherished amid the bric-a-brac: Toad’s collection of “iced” do-gooders stashed in a refrigerator, and the various inflections of idiocy rung by Bill Nighy and Andy Serkis as thick henchmen.) Flushed Away uncorks an elaborate climax that brings to mind the brilliantly engineered set pieces of Nick Park’s early Wallace and Gromit shorts, yet the airbrushed perfection of the spectacle only heightens the picture’s blend of advanced technology and diminished humanity, where nothing is as magical as a lump of clay made alive by a loving camera.