I was not ready for Flushed Away when it came out, turned off by what looked like over-hype (the usual movie tie-in merchandise I was used to, but ads played over the intercom in Kohl’s?). I also dislike rodents intensely and tire of the cliché of mice as heroes. After Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, though, I was primed for more stop-motion clay animation (this time heavily assisted by computer animation) and watching Pixar’s Ratatouille opened me up to the possibility of rodent heroes again. Which was good, because this movie has lots and lots of rats in it. A whole city’s worth.
That the rats talk and act like typical English humans was no surprise. Personification is an old staple of animation and has been a useful tool for telling fables for even longer. More surprisingly, when our rodent hero is literally flushed out of his expository scenes into the world of sewer rats, almost all of the rats he encounters are busy doing something instead of just standing around waiting to be encountered. Indeed, once the story moves to the rat city, we find the rats are so busy that there is a story already in progress! This in medias res second beginning – Rita’s flight and capture from rats after a ruby in her possession -- annoyed me at first, until I realized that it is the richness of the backstory of the secondary characters that makes it feel, initially, as if we have missed some important plot points. And everyone knows each other. On one level, it’s just a running gag when characters you don’t think would know each other do, but on another level it speaks of the dynamic environment all these characters hail from. They know each other because they all had rich lives before the story ever started.
The story is a flaky confection that doesn’t bear up to much scrutiny, but in a zany comedy like this it hardly matters. The real test is how much you care about the characters and here the movie succeeds. Roddy and Rita’s relationship builds organically without feeling forced (compare to the forced mammoth love of Ice Age 2). The villains each have at least one whimsical foible and are sympathetic to varying degrees. The henchrats Spike and Whitey, are charming and hilarious, easily getting the funniest lines of the movie (“You’ve got soft hands,” “They may be soft, but they’re lethal weapons!” and “Danger is my middle name!” “I thought it was Leslie.”) Even the boat, the Jammy Dodger, turns out to be a character and I was surprised to be moved by its loss. Rita’s absurdly dysfunctional family (right down to their precarious house boat), in a live action movie, would be character actor heaven, but you do hope that things turn out alright for them and, indeed, all of the rats as disaster threatens them at the end.
There are hidden gems and inside jokes enough to make multiple viewings necessary. The movie sold me right away with the inside joke about Roddy holding up a Wolverine costume (since he’s voiced by Hugh Jackman, Wolverine in the X-Men films). The Finding Nemo running gag is a lot of fun. The surfer, the one person in the crowd scene disappointed by the saving of the city, is a hilarious sight gag. And there is the top-rate voiceover work to go back and listen to. Sir Ian McKellen is wonderfully, manically expressive as the mad master villain, The Toad. You can see in the bonus features how he had to contort himself to stretch so much out of his voice.
I give the movie an A. If 2006 had not been an unusually good year for movies, this would have ranked higher, but as it is it surely is my fourth favorite movie from that year.