This newest feature from the venerable Aardman animation house isn't quite one for the ages like most of their previous efforts, but that doesn't mean it's not great fun in it's own right. A bit slight, yes, but it finds a good balance of fun somewhere between "Chicken Run's" earnest pluck and "Wallace & Gromit's" dry mock-sophistication and settles into it nicely.
The biggest change of note to Aardman fans (or animation buffs in general) is that the famously stop-motion devoted company has opted to dip it's toe into the CGI pool for this one, apparently a concession to the sheer difficulty of creating a film which takes place almost-entirely in, on or around moving water. Stylistically, though, it's obvious that great pains have been taken to ensure that the character models and movements replicate the studio's signature style. Another welcome mainstay, more pronounced than even in "Wallace," is Aardman's unabashed affection for the cultural quirks of their native Britain.
Hugh Jackman (late of "The Prestige" and, as the film takes great joy in reminding us, "X-Men,") dons his broadway-honed "rakish fop" hat as the voice of Roddy St. James, the pampered pet rat of a wealthy British family (are rats more popular as pets in England?) Roddy spends his life in, literally, a gilded cage; but when left alone leads a rich fantasy-life amid toys and dolls which seems almost enough to make him forget that he is, well, alone. One home-invasion by boorish sewer rat Sid (Andy "Gollum" Serkis, who just got done giving Jackman a hard time in "The Prestige,") and botched ejection attempt later, though, and Roddy is hurtling down the toilet drain and into the London sewer system, here imagine as a bustling urban metropolis of cockney, working-class rodents.
So, yes, we're in "African Queen"/"Romancing the Stone"/"Temple of Doom"/pampered-city-slicker-forced-into-real-world-jungle/ghetto territory once again, though this time with an amusing gender-switch: Roddy as the archetypal Brit aristocrat and tomboyish salvage boat captain Rita (Kate Winslet) as his only hope of navigating the way home, a way that becomes blocked both by Roddy's own naivete and the larger danger of The Toad, (Sir Ian McKellan, aka "Magneto," heh!,) the local gangster who's got a bizzare fetish for all things Royal Family, a beef with Rita and a genocidal scheme in mind for his rodent "inferiors."
Okay, the plot is formula. You know more-or-less how this is going to play out. You know that Roddy will fall instantly in-love with Rita after watching her perform some great feat of daring, that he'll come to learn the value of friendship, etc. You can even likely guess the how/why/when of Rita coming around on him, and maybe even what all the random references to World Cup Soccer are building to. But it's the getting-there that's fun.
The Aardman wit is as sharp as ever, but what works best here is the excellent "physical" comedy of the characters. Deliriously-funny bits emerge from such odd places as Roddy attempting a song and dance routine for an elderly woman who mistakes him for Tom Jones, or a showstopping sequence involving a frog mime and a camera-phone that must be seen to be believed. Even what seem like tired gags turn out to be gems, like Jean Reno's supporting turn as Toad's hitman cousin Le Frog, a running gag which seems to incorporate every single worn-out joke about the French but somehow makes them funny again; and even the obligatory sequence of crotch-hit gags come off fresh and funny.
I had fun with this, very-much reccomended.
FINAL RATING: 7/10