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Flushed Away Director Looks Back on How They Landed Hugh Jackman For Animated Cult Hit

This movie just doesn't get enough love, and we're here to fix that.

By Josh Weiss
Roddy (Hugh Jackman) in Flushed Away (2006) with his mouth open

The phrase "flush it all down the toilet" often carries a negative connotation, but in the case of 2006's Flushed Away (now streaming on Peacock), it's actually a very good thing.

Often overlooked when compared to DreamWorks' mega-properties like Shrek (aka the film that invented the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature), Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon, the film marked the company's third and final collaboration with Aardman, the U.K. based studio known for the iconic stop-motion hijinks of Wallace & GrommitShaun the Sheep, and Chicken Run. Unlike those titles, however, Flushed Away was Aardman's first foray into the world of CG animation.

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It's almost criminal how underrated the movie is, considering the fact that Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Bill Nighy, and Jean Reno all lent their voices to the thoroughly entertaining project.

Jackman leads the talented ensemble as Roddy St. James, a pampered and lonely pet rat, who finds himself on a whirlwind adventure through the sewers of London after he's unexpectedly flushed down the loo.

While traversing the literal land down under, Roddy allies himself with a plucky boat captain named Rita (Winslet) in an effort to get back home and evade the nefarious machinations of a conspiring and rat-hating Toad (McKellen). SYFY WIRE recently caught up with director David Bowers to learn more about the production plumbing behind Flushed Away.

Inside the Making-Of Animated Cult hit Flushed Away

Just to start off, tell us a little bit about the origins of the project…

David Bowers: Sam Fell, who I co-directed that movie with, had the idea for the movie. I was working on another picture at Aardman, called Tortoise Versus Hair, which ultimately didn't get made. I met Sam and we got on very well and it looked like Flushed Away might be a go movie, so I was invited to direct it with him.

And this was Aardman’s first CG-animated movie, right?

DB: It was. The goal was initially to do it as a stop-motion movie like the other movies. But CGI movies had been doing particularly well and I think DreamWorks were keen to tap into that. Also, as we continued to develop, the story got bigger and bigger. We came to realize that with so much water in the movie, at that time, it would have been very difficult, technologically, to marry the stop-frame and the water and have the camera moving as much as we wanted. So moving to CGI really freed us up to be a little more ambitious. We tried our best to keep the stop-frame look, we experimented with animating on twos. If you look at the characters closely, you can see they have thumbprints in them and they have that clay look. We wanted to get it as close to a traditional animated Aardman movie as possible.

What else can you remember from those early days as the film continued to evolve?

DB: It was really a love letter to British films that we both grew up with. So there’s a lot of James Bond in there and old Carry On movies and the Ealing comedies. At the same time, we looked to films like Sullivan’s Travels and The Africa Queen. I remember the Toad was originally a weasel, but we ended up basing the Toad on Noël Coward’s Mr. Bridger from The Italian Job. It was a fun film to work on, it really was. I think it's probably one of the most joke-stuffed movies ever made. The attention to detail of what's going on in the background and what people are doing and what people are saying. It's very dense in terms of comedy.

Le Frog (Jean Reno) eating a fly in Flushed Away (2006)

How’d you go about casting? Were any other actors considered?

DB: We cast a wide net, but I think we lucked out. We aimed high and managed to get the people we wanted. Hugh and Kate were fantastic. Ian McKellen was a real catch. I wish he'd do more comedy because he's so funny. I know he does comedy every now and again, but he is such a wonderful actor … It was very well-cast and we were very lucky to have those people.

What were the recording sessions like?

DB: It was fantastic. It was a real pleasure. For me, I was a novice director. It's the first film I directed. The process in animation is you put the storyboards together and you put them into a story reel. And usually, at that time, you don't want to waste the actors' time, so you just have people around the studio doing the voices. You work hard at it and you lock it in.

I remember going into my first recording session thinking, ‘I really hope the actors are able to match what we have.’ I was really a little bit nervous. They didn't just match it, they surpassed it in every way, every time. That was a big learning curve for me. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is why these people are in the position they're in.’ They’re just fantastic and creative and bring so much of their own personality and their own talent and experience. Having that wonderful cast really brought the characters to life.

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There’s a lot of Easter eggs like the classic Wolverine suit and a Star Wars reference. How did all those little nods come to be?

DB: I think it's just because Sam and I are such big film fans and putting references in is just fun for us. There isn't anything that wasn't considered. If you look at the opening when Roddy is selecting a DVD to watch, you'll see that every single title is a joke. We didn't want to reference too heavily. Shrek is a fantastic movie, but we didn’t want to get into the Shrek territory of actively parodying other movies. But it’s just little Easter eggs of things we loved. Some people get them and some people don’t. I guarantee you don’t get 50% of them because some of them are very obscure.

There’s also a Finding Nemo reference in there. Was there ever a worry of making Disney upset?

DB: No ... If somebody put a Flushed Away joke into one of their movies, I'd be flattered — not offended.

What would you say was your favorite scene to work on? Which one proved to be the most difficult?

DB: I loved everything with the frogs. It was a joy to work on. So the sillier it got, the more I enjoyed it. The hardest part of the film was possibly towards the end of production, maybe about a year from completion. We made a big choice to change Roddy’s backstory and how he lived, which meant that we had to throw out about 20 minutes of completed footage, which was very, very hard because it was some very funny stuff. Roddy originally had two hamster butlers who were hilarious. The hardest thing in animation is going in and changing, but you can’t get married to stuff. And if it makes it a better movie, it's worth doing.

I actually read about that on the movie's IMDb trivia page. It was to make him more alone, right?

DB: I think what we had originally [was] Roddy not physically alone, but completely alone, because his butlers were very subservient and respectful. So although he treated them like friends, there was obviously a class structure where they couldn't ever actually be his friends. But I don't know, maybe the new opening is a bit more on the nose where he is physically alone.

This obviously takes place in a highly-exaggerated universe, but did the animation team use real rats and toads as reference?

DB: No, not a bit. The only real-world study we did is we brought the whole production team over to London and toured quite extensively, so they’d get a feel for the vibe of the city. We took them to some of the grungier areas just to get a sense of what it would be like and we even went down into the London sewers, which was a trip. It looked nothing like the London sewers in Flushed Away, which have beautiful brick. It was just gray concrete and miserable with God-knows-what floating around your feet. But it was interesting.

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Did you throw around any sequel ideas during production?

DB: We did. You can't help but think towards the end of the film what you would like to do [in a sequel]. We were going to have Roddy and Rita traveling through the sewers of Europe and get onto the continent and have fun there. But we didn't really discuss it. And then, ultimately, we didn't have the opportunity to make a sequel. So it all went by-the-by. I think it would have been fun. I would have been happy to continue in that world with those characters.

Roddy (Hugh Jackman) hanging onto Rita (Kate Winslet) on a zipline in Flushed Away (2006)

Any other behind-the-scenes anecdotes that stick out?

DB: Animated films take four or five years to make. When the film was first conceived, DreamWorks Animation had been doing pretty well. Prince of Egypt came out to some acclaim. But actually, Chicken Run was the biggest movie that DreamWorks had. It was was their number one. But then Shrek happened and suddenly ... everything had to be an absolutely huge blockbuster. The quirky little British films — they are quite niche — maybe didn't feel as though they were going to be the ones to make a billion dollars, which is a fair assessment. So, it became a little bit of a struggle to make it as universal as possible. But Sam and I tried to keep it as British as possible. There was a little bit of back and forth, but, ultimately, I'm happy with where it landed.

Flushed Away is streaming on Peacock. Why should audiences either revisit the movie or discover it for the first time?

DB: It’s funny and it’s silly and it's uplifting. I think the characters are rich. I'm very proud of the film and I think it's just a diverting journey. It’s worth taking a look at. It's maybe sillier than a lot of films that get made nowadays. Sam and I were never after being overly sentimental [and] we didn't try to teach you a lesson. We didn't try to have you come out of the movie thinking about your life. We really made the film so that audiences could have a good time and laugh and it'd be funny and, hopefully, visually exciting. That's what we were going for and I think we succeeded.

Flushed Away is now streaming on Peacock.

Originally published Jun 20, 2023.