The other day, I was reminded that Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was the first movie—or at least the first major Hollywood movie—to show a flushing toilet. I wonder what Hitch, or the censors he offended, would have said if they could have foreseen that, less than half a century later, his fellow Brits would make a family-friendly animated cartoon in which a flushing toilet is one of the central plot devices.
Indeed, it's right there in the title. Flushed Away concerns a mouse named Roddy (voice of Hugh Jackman) who has been living a cushy, if caged, life as a child's pet in a posh London neighborhood. One day, while the humans are away, a slobby sewer rat named Sid (Shane Richie) emerges from the kitchen sink and, in no time at all, begins to act like the place is his own private pigpen. Roddy tries to get rid of him by tricking him into thinking the toilet is a Jacuzzi, but Sid sees through this immediately and sends Roddy spinning and swirling down the pipes.
The rest of the movie takes place almost entirely in the sewer system, where Roddy discovers a thriving society of rodents, amphibians, insects, slugs and fish, all modeled after modern-day England; there are streets, and bobbies, and doomsday prophets, and even fish-and-chips shops (though it is not clear whether they do, in fact, serve the talking fish). Given how scatological even family films have become in recent years, Flushed Away could easily have indulged in gross-out gags, but thankfully, for the most part, it refrains from that (apart from one or two bits, like the scene early on in which Roddy mistakes a chocolate bar for something else).
The film—directed by first-time feature directors David Bowers and Sam Fell from a script credited to Fell and no less than six other writers—takes a while to find its footing or to build any sort of momentum. Okay, Roddy's lost, and he wants to get home—that seems clear enough. So he tracks down a boat captained by a mouse named Rita (Kate Winslet). But she's being pursued by a couple of gangster rats named Spike (Andy Serkis) and Whitey (Bill Nighy), who want a ruby that she may have stolen from their boss—a pompous, over-dramatic amphibian who is obsessed with the monarchy, and who is called, simply, The Toad (Ian McKellen). And no sooner is the jewel taken care of, in a manner of speaking, than we discover that The Toad has a much bigger, and even more dastardly, plan up his sleeve.
As another critic once remarked about Shark Tale, this movie has lots and lots of plot, and lots of gags to go with each new plot twist, but it's difficult at times to figure out what the story is. Is it that Roddy wants to get home? Is it that Rita needs the jewel? Is it that The Toad's plans for sewer domination must be stopped?
Fortunately, the film throws just enough lunacy at us to keep things entertaining even when we're not really sure where it's going. Like other films produced by DreamWorks and Aardman Animation (Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), Flushed Away is loaded with groan-worthy puns ("Pardon me, my fly's undone," says The Toad when an insect he swallowed tries to escape) and pop-culture references (I spotted nods to James Bond, Superman, The Fly, Batman, Lady and the Tramp, Finding Nemo and Mary Poppins, among others), and it playfully mocks horror-movie clichés, as well (the old fisherman who takes Roddy to the docks where Rita can be found speaks into a bottle to make his voice echo).