The simplistic story of a pampered mouse flushed down the toilet who, in his struggle to make his way back home, learns lessons that forever change his view of what home is (yawn). The first, say, 15 minutes of Flushed Away are just terrible. Strangely, that's the 15 minutes that most closely follows our supposed hero, the pampered mouse, Roddy St. James (Hugh Jackman).
The problem is that Roddy is a complete cipher. Far from an endearing -- or even frustrating -- hero, there's absolutely no personality to hang your love on. He's lived a life of luxury, but other than fussing over the couches and his own appearance, he doesn't have any real bourgeois anxiety about entering a world of stinky sewer rats to overcome because he doesn't have any real upper-crust pretensions. He doesn't have any pretensions, because, fundamentally, he's been written with no personality. You can't even hate him, he's such a nonentity. Sure, along the way he learns a facile lesson about how it's better to live in squalor with family than alone in a gilded cage (uh, no doy), but since he has no personality and thus no real attachment to that cage, the big lesson he's meant to learn is meaningless.
It's odd seeing the main character act as nothing more than the catalyst that sets the whole rest of the film in motion, but that's what happens here. The Aristocratic Rat Roddy St. James, -- if not a groundbreaking concept, at least one with a bit of novelty and potential --merely sets more important things going. As Flushed Away slowly chugs to life, and as the focus shifts from him to the various idiosyncratic characters who inhabit the London sewers, we start to laugh -- though haltingly at first, because the first quarter-hour is such a shocking and unimaginative bore. We're reluctant to grasp at any hope of big laughs -- but then, as the plot becomes a vehicle for irreverence, we start to laugh more freely.
The first time you see a spooked slug scream almost inaudibly and try to scurry away -- its tail flipping frantically but generating almost no acceleration, the camera pausing on the spectacle long enough for the audience to soak up the absurdity of real-time terror moving that slow -- it's funny. The 20th time it happens, it's hilarious. Likewise, it gets funnier each time those same slugs become a kind of Greek chorus, belting out old American pop standards to accompany very British plot elements. (The central conflict involves a floodgate meant to protect the rats' sewer city against the prospect of 6 million Londoners flushing their toilets at halftime of soccer matches).
The filmmakers have that kind of daffy British wit that's able to create laughter through repetition without somehow ever getting annoying. It requires a patience and control that Aardman must have learned while doing claymation. (The stop-motion tedium of animating each of the 24 frames per second by hand would provide a lot of time to think about nuance.) And it's nice to see it has carried over, at least in part, to the company's computer-generated offerings. Flushed Away is a good film despite itself. If you can make it past the first 15 minutes, you'll find yourself laughing through the final 70.