Kids will probably be in stinky-sewage heaven with the new computer-animated critter comedy "Flushed Away," but even they may realize they're up the proverbial creek in a boat with a faulty motor. Parents will while away the time in moderate boredom until the film unexpectedly springs to life in its midsection, then just as abruptly goes back to sleep.
The story line is "Stuart Little" meets "Toy Story" on the way to "Madagascar" -- what, you were expecting originality? Hugh Jackman, busy fellow, voices the role of Roddy the pet rat, pampered and lonely in his gilded London cage. After his human owners go on vacation, the hero has to contend with Sid (Shane Richie), a party-hearty sewer rat who crashes the house and in short order flushes Roddy down the loo.
Down below, Roddy finds an entire bustling rat city, one threatened by the corpulent, villainous Toad (Ian McKellen) who plans to flood the burg by opening the sluiceways during halftime on World Cup Final day (when the entire population of England goes to the bathroom at once, get it?).
McKellen has a grand old time with his part, as do the rest of the cast: Bill Nighy as an albino rat henchman, Andy "Gollum" Serkis as his slightly smarter partner, Jean Reno as a French frog, and -- most cheeringly -- Kate Winslet as a plucky rat adventuress named Rita.
Jackman, by contrast, is stuck in a bland part, and the movie never really takes off until the other characters build up a head of steam. At that point, "Flushed Away" becomes genuinely funny for kids and adults alike, and it sustains an air of congenial lunacy for a good half-hour until the plot rears its ugly head again.
If it all feels a tad bipolar, there's good reason. The film is the third, final, and most fraught collaboration between Aardman Studios, the British-based animation house responsible for the "Wallace and Gromit" shorts, and
Not so with "Flushed Away." Combining clay animation and watery sets proved an insoluble problem (or rather, too soluble), and a 2005 fire at Aardman forced the production to go fully computer-animated, with half the work being done by DreamWorks in the States. Attendant creative clashes were reported, and the two companies have since parted ways.
You can feel the tug-of-war in the back of the multiplex. The characters still have the lidless pop-eyes and funny teeth of Aardman's clay creations -- and no one knows how to make fun of the French better than the British -- but the slick CG is at odds with the company's patented handmade funkiness. For one thing, the mouth movements feel jerky and incomplete. For another, "Flushed Away" keeps getting pulled in the direction of formulaic big-budget crash-and-bang only to stop, time and again, for a spot of tea.
Will your children care? No, but listen to them when they're talking about the movie on the way home. The parts they respond to -- the droll character humor or the frenetic action -- will decree which corporate parent will be taking custody of their pop-culture sensibilities. Divorce is a drag, but it's hardest of all on the kids.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.