From Clay to Computer

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DreamWorks Animation LLC and Aardman Animations Ltd

After Roddy, a mouse living the posh life in his owners apartment, is flushed away, he'll need the help of Rita if he's going to get back.

In a warehouse in Bristol, England, they have toiled away, as their ancestors have done for a hundred years. Painstakingly, perfectly, they build little movie sets and fashion in Plasticine the creatures to live there. They take a photograph of the scene, then move certain figures a micrometer, then take another picture. They do this about a 100,000 times to produce, in four or five years, a feature film like Chicken Run or Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

At Aardman Studios they make art by hand, in a form called stop-motion animation whose history stretches back to the first days of cinema. It certainly goes back to the solitary youths of many Aardmanites. Nick Park, the studio's resident genius, was one of those kids who played with clay in a corner of his Lancashire home until, like Dr. Praetorius in Bride of Frankenstein, he made those little figures come alive.

All that meticulous drudgery pays off in a sparkling finished product. Park and Peter Lord and the hundreds of other genial obsessives over in Bristol have crafted some of the loveliest comic films since Chaplin's. Creature Comforts, Park's day at the zoo with talking animals, and his short films with Wallace the cheese-loving suburban inventor and Gromit his mutely heroic dog, can match any animated films of the past 20 years. But the process cannot be delightful. Most American animators would say it's daft, all that precision—toying with clay, when, these days, computers can do so much of the work for you.

That notion must have drifted over to Bristol. After two features and dozen of shorts whose wit and grace proved that stop-motion deserved to survive in the digital era, some of the Aardmanites agreed to go to California and make a computer-generated feature with the company's American partner, DreamWorks. (Not Park; he stayed home.)

Could Aardman go to Hollywood without going Hollywood? The answer comes in Flushed Away, supervised by Lord and directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell. It's an entertaining comedy that vibrates with two kinds of tension: of antique artisans working in a new medium, and of English artists collaborating and colliding with American showmanship.

The movie's reluctant hero, Roddy (voiced by Hugh Jackman), is a pampered, upper-class-English pet mouse. Kept in a literally gilded cage by a nice family in Kensington, Roddy has impeccable manners and a chipper demeanor that can't quite mask his loneliness. So when he's flushed down a toilet into the London sewer system, and discovers a complex underworld underground, he is at first horrified, then thrilled to join a plucky rodent named Rita (Kate Winslet) in her comrades' battle against the pompous toad king (Ian McKellen). This, Roddy realizes, is the bustle and agitation he's been missing—the agita and ecstasy of life.

Flushed Away wants to convince you that the threat of tadpoles plaguing London is somehow more horrifying than the actual pestilence of rats every large city suffers from. But it's a fantasy—with attitude. Toad is, if not a racist, a species-ist; after some rats bungle an assignment, he complains, "I should never have had rodents do an amphibian's job." It has fun at the expense of Germans and especially the French, who are portrayed as cowardly and snobbish. ("You find my pain funny?" asks Toad of a French creature called Le Frog, voiced by Jean Reno. Le Frog replies, "I find everyone's pain funny but my own. I'm French.") Naturellement, the movie is awash in rodent jokes, from an amusing libel on the Pied Piper to the crucial moment when Roddy implores Rita to "Nibble for your life!"

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